Would you believe me if I told you scientists could completely change the physical characteristics of an entire species by changing one small piece of DNA? It’s true, and it has been happening for the past 20 years or so. Although it did not work effectively at first, there have been recent examples of gene editing that show the science has the ability to impact the entire field of biology.
One study that produced easily observable results was run through George Washington University. In this study, a team of scientists manipulated the WntA gene in butterflies, which produced varied wing patterns. Some species developed a striped pattern, while others had a distinct difference in the separation of colors. This study is just one small example of the effects of gene editing.
A larger example was performed in China, where they edited goats’ genes in two ways. The first was by deleting a gene that inhibited muscle growth. This allowed goats to gain much more mass than their non-edited counterparts. The goats also contained a manipulation of the gene that stunts hair growth, thus allowing their hair to grow much longer. The FGF5 gene is found in many animals and works to keep hair at a manageable length. However, goats who grow longer hair can produce more cashmere, just as bulkier goats will offer more meat. This is a huge advancement, as this could potentially translate to other animals and provide a wealth of animal products.
Scientists can also easily implement the CRISPR technology in plant biology. The biggest use for gene editing would be creating a resistance to diseases. This includes bacterial blight in rice and citrus canker. By preventing these diseases, pesticides and other potentially harmful chemicals may no longer be needed. Furthermore, plants could be altered to appear more attractive, taste better, and grow outside of their normal seasonal timeframes. This would be a huge benefit for farmers in harsh terrain, as they could plant genetically-engineered plants and harvest them year-round.
Outside of optimized food sources, CRISPR also serves the medical community. Scientists have recently found a way to engineer mosquitos that are resistant to malaria. Malaria kills one child every 30 seconds, so the impact could reach millions of people. At the same time, researchers are looking into ways to manipulate pig DNA, to create viable organs for human transplants. There are also talks of CRISPR utilization for patients with muscular dystrophy.
There may also be ways for doctors to genetically engineer embryos to prevent genetic diseases. This could effectively end inherited diseases and lessen cases of preventable conditions. However, this would be an invasive procedure that currently has a high risk of injury, and potential side effects include the mother’s death.
Yet, for as many positives CRISPR has, many people criticize the move toward gene editing. Some people disapprove due to religious reasons, while others question the ethical integrity of such a procedure. While it may not seem immoral to beef up some livestock or allow corn to grow in January, is it responsible to allow humans to choose the eye color of their child or prevent genetic diseases? Beyond these ethical questions, there is a question of evolution. How will humans evolve over time (or not evolve at all) if their genes are constantly being structured? What happens if this technology is not available to the average person? There is the potential dark path CRISPR can go down if we let it. Although these questions do not have objective answers, they will need an answer before we’re all offered the chance to CRISPR the next generation.