What CRISPR Means

Science Fiction warned us that when something truly out of the normal appears we are likely to treat it as magic. Our history tells us that we greet the new thing with skepticism and attack the creators rather than the idea behind the invention. We are inclined to ignore it until it is forced upon our consideration. The motive for the existence of the new thing remains undiscussed until the profit in it is recognized. Once monetized the scope of its effect on life becomes clear and opposition becomes philosophical as well as societal. Let me start again: this is a big red flag waving right now for you to put something new on your radar, a thing called CRISPR.

By new, I mean 1987 when the basic idea was grasped. Since then, refinements in technology have enabled humanity to apply the discovery. Realistically, the last four years have seen explosive growth in this research with not a lot of public awareness. This week, Time Magazine offers the CRISPR Techologists as one candidate for Person of the Year (Who Trump will Trump be Trump picked Trump?). Once again the attention of the public to something that will change life is diverted.

If you are getting your knowledge about CRISPR from me, woe unto you. This is molecular manipulation we are considering, a topic about which I am unarmed to cover. I do know English, though, and this helps us understand a complex new thing indeed. CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats” and it helps first of all to know what a palindrome is. Now I’m your man. It is Greek and it means “running back again”. We take it now to mean a phrase that is the same forward or backward. The most well known of these I learned as a child, the first phrase that the first man said upon encountering the first woman : “Madam, I’m Adam”. A CRISPR is a short palindrome which repeats regularly in clusters. That means that if you could stand back and look at it from a distance you would see these phrases that are the same backwards and forwards repeating themselves at regular intervals. Now imagine you are looking at a strand of human DNA. Holy cow! It does the same thing.

What good is this to anybody? The humanitarian thinks it can be used to spot irregularities, potential diseases or deformities in humans, and it can, making it very useful on this level. It also has a superpower: the CRISPR is also a zipper. It can unzip and rezip a gene strand like your fly, Harvey. So far, so good, now your zipper is open. Here comes the new wrinkle in this, the Cas-9 enzyme. Imagine if we could equip the CRISPR with a pair of scissors. It could roll up to a bad spot, unzip the parts gone wrong, snip them away, and zip ‘er up. That is what we are able to do now, quick and done along a strand reliably over and over as needed. Current results show that the “repaired” strand will duplicate itself in its new structure from this time on, an organic repair.

The scope of the good and evil in this now appears. There is no gene that cannot be altered in this way. How would you react to the use of such “tools” on an embryo to excise any possibility of disease with the knowledge that the repairs will forever be repeated in future genetic descendants?This is not many steps away from ordering the genetic traits of your future children. If we can prevent disease, why not make them “immune” to obesity and aging? We only begin to touch the uses of this on people. Perhaps we could create a soldier immune to fear. Maybe we could create an entire race based on the genetics of only one person. We are at the first step of this though no one is talking about it.

Consider the scope of genetic manipulation of plants. We could create medicine plants to keep us healthy. Microbes which eat discarded plastic and excrete water and oxygen are possible. What about the “ownership” of such a plant? If enough food can be grown in this way to feed the world, a money-based economy would lose its importance. This may be a spur to population growth over time as more people eat healthy food and live longer lives. Their genes can be directed to keep them alive by accepting new organs grown in this fashion for transplant. Everywhere your mind turns, it is possible to envision change caused by this innovation.

Look online and you will see who has skin in the game already. Even a brief look uncovers large investment by MIT, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Stanford, and other big universities. Already we see big start-up names on line like Genomics, Clontech, Synthego, and start-up sites like IndieGoGo. There and in many other places, you are able to buy right now kits that allow you to use this innovation in your personal investigations, providing you the raw materials, equipment, videos and assistance for what you have in mind, Dr. Frankenstein. Get this: $130 buys you a starter kit online right now. Look a little deeper and you will find, for $5,000, a kit labeled, “Make Your Own Organism”.

This makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up, and if you saw how long it is you would really be alarmed. My question now is how can I get anyone to read this? How far will this go before something colossally stupid happens,before someone figures out a way to own us through this, before we suspect anything is up?

-written by Tom Hope on December 6, 2016

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