What is CRISPR and Why Should You be Hyped About It?

Written by Simone le Roux

If you have any geeky friends or perhaps are the geeky friend yourself, then you will most likely have heard “CRISPR” whispered on the wind by Biologists. What is CRISPR, why are people so excited, and is it actually just a neat new air fryer? Now is the chance to find out.

A Bit of Background

To understand the solution, you first need to understand the problem. For those of us who don’t remember high school Biology as well as our teachers hoped we would, here’s a quick recap on genetics. You, as a human being (or similar carbon-based alien life form; no judgement), have your own unique genome. This is essentially a set of all of the information that makes up the whole of you and dictates everything from the colour of your hair to your political views (seriously). You have approximately 700 megabytes of data in each and every DNA-containing cell in your body, which is pretty damn amazing. This information is coded into your DNA and read by tiny helper proteins which make sure that the right instructions are carried out in the correct cell. This is how it’s possible that cells in your stomach and cells in your eyes have the exact same set of DNA, but your eyes don’t secrete hydrochloric acid every time you have a snack. Incidentally, this would still be a more useful mutant super power than whatever the hell Jubilee does.

The whole incredible system is extremely complex and, like all complicated systems, it sometimes messes up. If there is a mistake in one tiny section of your DNA it can wreak havoc on your entire body and there is a very long list of genetic disorders to illustrate this. They range from a minor hindrance to utterly devastating. Unfortunately, very little can be done to treat them because there is not much we can do about something that is coded in to what makes you who you are.

And then there’s the issues that scientists face in trying to do research. In order to find out what a specific gene does or what it looks like, they go through a long, arduous process to isolate the gene, place it in to another cell or organism, check its functions and make sure they aren’t getting that gene confused with another one. It takes a lot of time and resources that could be put to better use.

Enter CRISPR

CRISPR-Cas9, as it’s formally called, sounds too simple to be true. It’s the cut-‘n’-stick solution that a toddler would have thought of, given the rudimentary explanation above (including ripping in to Jubilee because she’s honestly the worst and children need to know that too). Cas9 acts like an adorably minuscule and obedient pair of scissors, cutting DNA precisely where scientists direct it to cut. This mechanism can be used to remove a gene from a string of DNA entirely. Once the gene is removed, the cell’s natural impulse is to fix it. CRISPR allows the scientist to manipulate the repair process so that the old gene is replaced with a new one, different than before. It’s kind of like being able to cut a line of code out of the matrix and all cars suddenly become Transformers (Michael Bay, hit me up for more ideas). When that edited cell reproduces in to more cells, the new gene becomes the norm and the gene we wanted to get rid of is no longer an issue.

Essentially, this means that we can cut the bad genes (like cancer, Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis, latent evil) out of DNA and put good genes (stronger immune systems, cancer-fighting systems, super powers) in to DNA and we can do it to living cells.

Why you Should be Excited

CRISPR has literally changed the game. Not only is it faster and cheaper than alternative gene therapies, but it is also highly effective in living organisms. The fact that CRISPR is a generally more affordable technique means that it’s more accessible to labs around the globe. This has led to an explosion of developing new uses for the technology. The applications of CRISPR range wildly from more effective plant science to obliterating genetic disorders and even storing movies. It has essentially propelled us into a sci-fi movie, where suddenly new, unimaginable procedures are possible.

Most recently, scientists were able to edit heart disease-causing genes out of human embryos. This means that, if those embryos were allowed to develop in to grown humans, they would not carry the disease that ruined their parents’ quality of life nor would they pass that disease on to their offspring. CRISPR has the potential to nip debilitating diseases in the bud forever. This technology is still being further developed and refined before it is used in full-on human trials (ie. In embryos not specifically used for research purposes).

CRISPR also presents a very futuristic argument about the possibilities of designer babies. Will we one day be able to select whether our children have brown or green eyes, are more empathetic, or better at maths? Is it ethical for us to do so? Furthermore, how do we decide which genes we should and should not be able to edit out legally? Getting rid of debilitating genetic diseases seems obvious, but what about a child destined to have very low levels of empathy? Do we have the right to make them more empathetic?

Fortunately, any of these dilemmas are a very long way off from being an issue and we're nowhere near reaching GATTACA status. What makes CRISPR so exciting is that these issues are moving from a distant science-fiction future to our reality very quickly. Not only that, but we can look forward to medicine and agriculture becoming safer and more efficient. Wherever you stand in the various debates, CRISPR is certainly the technology to keep an eye on in the coming years.