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What is CRISPR/Cas9? Part 2: From Micropigs to Woolly Mammoths

What is CRISPR/Cas9? Part 2: From Micropigs to Woolly Mammoths

CRISPR/Cas9 isn’t a new technique. It was first discovered in the DNA of bacteria back in 1987. But it was only in 2012 that researchers at UC Berkeley ramped up and begin to more fully exploit the gene splicing tool in the field of genetic engineering.

It might be safe…

In 2014 wheat was modified using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology (to my knowledge this isn’t available for public consumption). DNA was edited to insert resistance to a powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungus disease that affects a range of plants. New varieties can be bred using traditional plant breeding but proponents of biotech methods such as CRISPR claim that long breeding cycles and lack of precision make for a resource intensive process.  Furthermore, claims are being made that technologies such as CRISPR are safe because they don’t involve foreign DNA being inserted from another plant.

But there is much more that we don’t know…

Unfortunately, special interests are taking control of the discussion, pushing aside proper research in favor of flying the technology in under the radar. CRISPR-Cas9 may yet prove to be safe or dangerous, but the technique is NOT fully understood and therefore caution is needed. But commercial development rushes ahead with seemingly little concern for safety or environmental impact. Everything from genetically modified mosquitos released in Florida (to combat Zika virus), to CRISPR-modified farm animals (allergen-free chicken eggs and others) to CRISPR modified pets (micro pigs the size of dachshunds in custom colors) and “de-extincting” animals such as the Wooly Mammoth are in development. (‘Jurassic Park’?)

cute_piglet

According to “Scientific American” even the US director of national intelligence has expressed concern, saying that ease of access and low cost could increase the risk of harmful biological agents being unleashed. Nowadays many people are at least generally familiar with GMOs or genetic engineering. But back in 1982 when the FDA approved the first GMO product (genetically engineered insulin) that was not the case. At that time almost no one had heard of the technique and there was little public discussion. Insulin arguably presented benefits, but by 1994 the USDA approved Flavr Savr GM tomatoes and by 1999 crops produced by genetic engineering became the dominant crop.

So we can see that it didn’t take long to move from genetically engineering a medical product to genetically engineering crops which can spread themselves through the wind and out into nature. But genetic engineering was an expensive and relatively slow technology to work with. Given its lower cost and relative speediness, how quickly will CRISPR-Cas9 permanently enter our food chain and change our world in unknown ways? It’s essential that the public gains knowledge and policyholders have the opportunity to ensure proper safety studies are conducted. Otherwise, we risk repeating the same dire mistakes made with GMOs/genetic engineering with health and environmental effects that continue to unfold.