Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Larkin. Larkin Wonders, “how can we use crispr in the future?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Larkin!

What’s in your genes? DNA determines the color of your eyes and hair. It can also make you more likely to have conditions like diabetes and Alzheimer’s.  Everyone’s DNA is different, and it’s shaped by what’s passed down to you by your parents.

What if people could alter DNA? Believe it or not, the technology to do so already exists. Gene editing is the practice of changing an organism’s DNA. It’s been around since the 1990s. But the introduction of a tool called CRISPR in 2009 brought gene editing further into the public eye. 

CRISPR (say “crisper”) stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It was first discovered in 1987 by scientists who were studying E. coli. While studying the bacteria’s DNA, they found a new gene sequence they didn’t recognize. They named this sequence CRISPR.

Experts soon found that CRISPR was present in all bacteria. Still, they didn’t understand its purpose. Then, in 2007, they learned that CRISPR plays a part in bacteria’s immune systems. When a bacterium is infected by a virus, it fights back and then chops up the virus’s genetic code. Then, the bacterium stores the pieces of code in its own CRISPR sequences. If the virus comes back, special enzymes called Cas9 recognize it. These enzymes read the code stored in CRISPR and know to immediately attack the returning virus. 

A new breakthrough came in 2011. That year, scientists found they could teach Cas9 enzymes to attack any gene they wanted. What does that mean for human gene editing? Experts believe they could use CRISPR/Cas9 to alter any gene in the human body. That includes genes linked to disorders like ALS.

The first human application of CRISPR happened in 2018. That year, a Chinese doctor used the technology to edit the genes of two twin girls before their birth. He reportedly made them immune to HIV.

Then, on March 4, 2020, doctors applied CRISPR to the first grown human beings. In this case, they used the tool to fight a gene mutation that causes blindness. Scientists will watch the effects of this trial for the next year.

Many people are excited about the future of CRISPR. They hope the technology could one day cure genetic conditions like sickle cell and cystic fibrosis. It could even help stop some cancers and help make some animal organs safe for human transplant.

Others question the ethics of editing human genes. Many ask whether all people will have equal access to CRISPR. They’re also worried about the possibility of editing human babies before they’re born. People are concerned about future health effects, as well. The ethics of using CRISPR will be a discussion for years to come.

What do you think of gene editing? Should people use CRISPR to prevent genetic conditions? What other possible concerns can you think of? As with any new advancement, it’s exciting to think about what people COULD do with CRISPR. But it’s just as important to think about what they SHOULD do. Talk about what you think with people in your life.


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