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CRISPR just might be this year’s favorite to win the Nobel Prize.
And why not? Since its release, it has taken the scientific world by storm. Most recently it was used by researchers in Spain to take the gluten out of wheat and scientists in Japan to change the color of a garden plant from blue to white.
It has also been used in New York to increase crop yield. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CHSL) has used the CRISPR/Cas-9 system to edit a tomato genome. “The researchers edited trait variations or major components known to affect yield rates in crops.” They modified branch architecture, fruit size, and the overall shape of the plant.
The result? Significantly more crops. Considering the world’s population is only growing, this solution really comes in the nick of time.
Medically, scientists are starting to consider CRISPR to correct the genetic mutation responsible for sickle-cell disease. “Sickle-cell disease is one of the most common genetic disorders.” Millions and millions of people around the world surfer from this disease. It mostly affects the African American and Latino communities, but people in the Middle East and Asia are susceptible as well.
Sickle-cell is caused by a mutation in HBB, the gene that makes hemoglobin, an oxygen carrying protein. Blood cells that are healthy and normal are disc shaped. Cells affected by sickle-cell are shaped like sickles used to cut wheat. These cells tend to clump together in the body, impacting oxygen flow and causing severe pain.
Sickle-cell is a very well-researched, single gene mutation, making it an excellent candidate for CRISPR. The idea is that CRISPR will “raise the levels of a fetal form of hemoglobin in red blood cells, turning them healthy.” This should counteract the effects of the sickle mutation.
Just today, it was announced that CRISPR will be used for target mapping in rare cancers. Advances in sequencing have allowed for greater understanding in genetic causes, and now small molecule screens and the CRISPR/Cas-9 system will work together to study rare, hard to find cancers. This is obviously a really great thing. More research means better medicine, right?
Scientists also believe that the gene editor will help us better understand why miscarriages happen. British scientists “found that a certain human genetic marker called OTC4 played an important role in the formation and development in the early stages of embryonic development.” When they used CRISPR to get rid of that gene, the embryos failed to grow properly.
So yeah, I totally believe CRISPR is going to win the Nobel prize this year. I have spent so much time talking about the dangers…about designer babies primed to take over the world…and I’m not alone.
But why do we, as a society, always go “doom-and-gloom”? Why do we always assume the worst-case scenario? Is it our strong desire, strong need to be entertained? Based on what society now finds entertaining, I believe most of us are always tempted to make a mountain out of a molehill.
I think we all need to focus on all the good CRISPR can do and stop worrying about human gene modification. Because if we fear CRISPR, how will we ever allow it to help us?