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CRISPR/Cas9 and its natural inspiration

Jayde Martin highlights the role of evolution in developing the genome editing tool

What’s natural about genetic engineering? That’s the first question I hear you ask. I would like to argue that it is, indeed, nothing short of organic. CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence. Significantly, its inspirational origin is based on that of a type of mutational change - a natural development - consequently, this type of genome editing can be classed as ‘natural’. (After all, the two most ‘natural’ aspects of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing are its inspirational origin and that it is merely a form of mutational change; the latter is a highly natural development, only this time it can be controlled).

CRISPR/Cas9 is modelled off an entirely organic process in bacteria: scientists have learnt to utilise the adaptive immune response of Staphylococcus aureus to a viral infection, as a genetic modification template. This is important to help the human species overcome predisposed genetic conditions that could lead to rapid degenerative decline and early death. Here, we have a case of a scientific technique derived from a natural process, to further manage and expand human life expectancy. For this alone, I would like to state that genetic engineering is, in fact, natural.

The immune response of a bacterium, such as S. aureus, to a viral infection is the result of prokaryotic evolution. The bacteria create two RNA strands, one of which mirrors the DNA sequence of the virus in question. These two RNA strands then form a complex with Cas9, which is essentially a nuclease, the cut and paste enzyme of the biological world. Cas9 takes a section of the viral DNA, severs it, and then matches the RNA to the viral DNA. It essentially robs the virus of its original DNA, without which the virus cannot replicate.

Cas9 and its mischievous RNA strands have a 20 set base pair to match the viral DNA–many of these Cas9 enzymes will take different sections of the virus to fully incapacitate it, by snatching strands of its entire DNA sequence. So how does this relate to the manipulation and mutation of the human genome? Instead of 20 base pairs of RNA that matches virus DNA, Cas9 can be used to target 20 base pairs of the human genome, replicate it, and cut. Controlling what and where CRISPR/Cas9 cuts is how we exploit this natural process as a tool for our own means–just like we did with fire and the invention of the wheel.

From the very discovery of genetics itself, we have known that mutation and adaptation are entirely natural processes, which all species undergo. The prevailing fear of changing our genes is arguably outdated, so the important question to pose is: why does our control over it scare us? Yes, there are fears of neo-eugenicism (an ideology concerned with improving a species, through influencing or encouraging reproduction with parents that have desirable genetic traits). However, through awareness and consideration of disability studies, identity politics, and even the study of post-colonialism, we, as the next generation of researchers, can avoid the mistakes of the past.

It is time to change the way in which we perceive genetic engineering. Shedding the image that dystopian science fiction has painted it to be, I believe we can make it something different. We can inclusively adapt genetic engineering to our advantage: its potential application in genetic therapies is promising for carriers of genetic disorders, such as phenylketonuria, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell syndrome. Instead of the messy idea of eradicating ‘disease’, we can develop a genetically-diverse spectrum of individuals, and reinstate the right to a full and longer life in individuals who would otherwise succumb to genetic disorders.

Genetic modification should always be considered alongside identity politics and ethics. But instead of blindly fearing advances in bio-technology, we should opt to utilise it sensibly to improve the quality of living–after all, it is of a naturally-occurring process!

From Issue 14

For more information, see:

Mark Priestly, ‘Birthrights’ in Disability A Life Course Approach, (Polity Press: Cambridge, 2003), pp. 35-60

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