Janelle Cammenga—Staff Writer
Science fiction exists to show us what could be; things that could be possible someday, but currently only exist in the imagination.
But some science fiction movies are not as far off from the present as we might think. Gattaca, for example, brings up the idea of “designer babies,” where every child is screened so diseases can be caught and corrected before birth. Genetic research has always thought about this, but until recently, the process of modification was slow and difficult.
Thanks to technological advances in the past couple years, however, this has changed, and possible applications have expanded.
“[CRISPR] is the next generation of DNA modifications,” said Dordt Biology professor John Olthoff.
CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeat.”
Those words might sound complicated, but the application of this technology is relatively simple. Every living organism has DNA, the genetic code that dictates how the organism looks and functions. Different sections of the genome (the collective DNA of one individual) affect different parts of the organism. CRISPR allows scientists to turn on or off certain parts of the genome, an act which is called a “knockout.”
Scientists take part in reverse genetics, meaning that they experiment by turning off genes in order to find out what each gene is responsible for.
The concept of genetic modification is not new. For example, farmers and scientists alike have been honing in on good genes through different breeding techniques. TransOva, a company in Sioux Center, specializes in reproductive techniques and embryo transfer for cattle.
The work of CRISPR is nothing unusual. CRISPR makes the process of modification faster and more targeted, but the goals themselves have existed for many years.
For instance, farmers normally dehorn their cattle. If an animal is born without horns, farmers will breed it in the hopes that the offspring will also be born without horns. The process takes years and does not always work. With CRISPR, scientists can discover which genes dictate horn growth and turn them off.
“I think it’s a really fascinating idea that has a lot of potential for both ethical and unethical means,” sophomore Aidan Bender said. “That’s about all I can say about it without looking up extra research and giving you an intro, body, and conclusion paragraph.”
As with all new technology, there are ethical problems that arise from the application of CRISPR.
“It’s another tool that can be used for good or can be used for harm,” said Dordt Biology professor Tony Jelsma.
Testing is an ethical issue, as embryos that undergo CRISPR modification often die. Off-target effects also occur, meaning that the CRISPR virus sometimes sticks somewhere unintended in the genome, potentially messing with a working system.
In addition, there is discussion about modifying plants to make photosynthesis more efficient, with the hope that more plants can grow in drought-stricken areas. But perhaps putting these plants in unnatural environments would have consequences on the rest of the biome, another unintended consequence.
“We never see the unintended consequences,” Olthoff said. “There needs to be some means of assessment early on.”
There are bigger questions to answer, too.
While successful human modification is not feasible at the moment, “It’s a lot closer than it was,” Olthoff said. It therefore needs to be given serious thought.
“The technology provides some really good tools to understand how God’s creation works, allowing us to intervene and improve health,” Olthoff said. “But how far can we go? Who has oversight on what is ideal and perfect?… Science tends to break things into itty bitty parts, and then we lose the big picture.”