Just under 40 years ago, scientists created the first genetically modified organism by inserting antibiotic resistance genes into the bacteria E. coli. Since that time, researchers have modified everything from salmon to tomatoes and corn. But a new development, announced this summer, could exponentially increase our power over the genome.
Kevin Esvelt and George Church, both scientists at Harvard University, along with collaborators, published the framework for an entirely new way of modifying organisms, one that they say is mere months away from reality. It has the potential to alter the DNA of nearly any sexually-reproducing organism—tame or wild—at unprecedented scales.
Eleanor Nelsen and I reported on the technique , dubbed CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives, back in July:
Cas9-based gene drives could be one of the most powerful technologies ever discovered by humankind. “This is one of the most exciting confluences of different theoretical approaches in science I’ve ever seen,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “It merges population genetics, genetic engineering, molecular genetics, into an unbelievably powerful tool.”
The technique could wipe out malaria or provide new, safer ways to control weeds. But they’ll only finish their work if we as a society give our assent.
The two-part system works by using CRISPR—a remarkably efficient way to modify genomes—to insert gene drives into an organism’s chromosomes. These drives then copy themselves between chromosomes, ensuring that each of their offspring contain a copy of the gene. Within a handful of generations, entire populations could contain the exact traits we desire.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives could not only limit the transmission of diseases, they could also alter wild populations to aid their survival in a ecosystems dominated by humans and upended by global warming. The technique’s remarkable potential will undoubtedly make it one of the most controversial—and important—issues of the coming years.