A new era of genetic manipulation seems to be on the horizon.
While humans have manipulated the genes of plants and animals for thousands of years through selective breeding, scientific advances in the last 50 years have given us the ability to directly alter the DNA of organisms in ways never before possible.
Impressive and scary as they are, experiments directly changing the genes of organisms have traditionally been slow to mature, highly expensive and incredibly difficult.
Recent gains in the way we understand bacterial immune systems promise to make these problems a thing of the past, however. A new utilization of specific DNA sequences found in microorganisms, commonly referred to as CRISPRs, has allowed scientists new opportunities to edit genes in ways that are faster and cheaper than ever before.
If using these bacterial editors proves to be as impactful as scientists believe, they could very well change the way we deal with pests, diseases and food shortages. If misused, they could also prove to be extremely dangerous.
As bacteria come into contact with viruses bent on invasion and destruction, they develop proteins and enzymes designed to destroy specific genes in the DNA of each specific enemy, leading to their death. After each viral victory, the bacteria catalogue their DNA disruptors in CRISPR sequences, keeping them in a back pocket in case of any repeated exposures.
Scientists discovered that by altering the makeup of these sequences, they could reprogram bacterial security systems to target any gene that they want. By doing so, scientists are able to use CRISPR molecules to re-write the genetic code of target organisms in ways that are much faster and more directly targeted than previous methods.
Many scientists believe that gene editing could help humans become immune to cancer and disease; however, the applications for genetic engineering seem almost limitless.
These applications should be developed with the utmost care, however, as even a tiny error in manipulating DNA could lead to profound changes in an organism.
For every scientist bragging about genetically modified mushrooms that brown slower than normal and pesticide resistant crops, there is another scientist warning against the possible unseen effects such treatments can have on the organism, as well.
An especially troubling problem comes from the fact that a change in genetic material doesn’t only affect the immediate organism. Many times, the offspring of that organism will show signs of disruption in their own genes, leading to long term effects over generations that can be difficult or impossible to predict.
Scientists are still working to understand how different genes react with each other to influence our bodies and minds.
Some scientists have created CRISPR molecules that engineer “gene drives” in mosquitoes and have spread altered genetic information throughout laboratory populations to create sterile females unable to bite.
Eventually, gene drives could lead to an entire species dying out, due to such changes spreading through a population as it breeds.
While this might sound like the next magic bullet for invasive and dangerous pests, we cannot forget the lessons we are still learning from the widespread use of pesticides.
Even in the most controlled gene drive, the loss of an entire species would undoubtedly cause ripple effects through the surrounding ecosystem.
When it comes to the study of the long term effects gene editing might have on ourselves and the world around us, patience is a virtue.
While the future of genetic engineering seems to promise huge advances in the agricultural and medical worlds, it is important to keep in mind the powerful and mysterious forces at play in such methods and to work with appropriate caution.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at email@example.com.