Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From crisp jeans to ... CRISPR genes?

I suffer from many problems.  One of them is that I want to know about stuff even if I can't figure out any damn thing about it.  Well, that is not the problem as much as thinking that such a desire to know about stuff is some kind of an asset.  I am the perfect embodiment of a fool in his own paradise.  But, hey, it keeps me out of trouble!

The first time I read about CRISPR, I was, well, practically freaked out.  That was back in March.  To this day, if somebody asked me to explain the scientific process and technique of editing genes, well, I will draw a blank.  If I cannot explain it, then I should stay away from reading and talking about it, right?  But, I tell ya, I am a fool who has constructed his own paradise ;)

In that post in March, I had quoted, from the article that I read, one of the brains behind this gene-editing CRISPR technology--Jennifer Doudna,--who had this to say:
Doudna says she is also thinking about these issues. “It cuts to the core of who we are as people, and it makes you ask if humans should be exercising that kind of power. There are moral and ethical issues, but one of the profound questions is just the appreciation that if germ line editing is conducted in humans, that is changing human evolution,” Doudna told me. One reason she feels the research should stop is to give scientists a chance to spend more time explaining what their next steps could be. “Most of the public,” she says, “does not appreciate what is coming.”
You and I and nearly seven billion others are the ones that she was referring to as the ones who do not appreciate what is coming.

And then a month ago, I blogged again about CRISPR.  And now a third one.  Why?  Because I read this in the Scientific American:
scientists have just created a new kind of goat, with bigger muscles and longer hair than normal. The goats were made not by breeding but by directly manipulating animal DNA
How was the DNA manipulated?  You know the answer by now.  Yes, CRISPR.  And you laughed at me when I freaked out in March--a mere eight months ago!

Guess what?  Those scientists are in China--"at the Shaanxi Provincial Engineering and Technology Research Center for Shaanbei Cashmere Goats."
Once the goat team began to deploy CRISPR, their progress was rapid. In September Qu and 25 other collaborating scientists in China published the details of their research in Nature’s Scientific Reports. In early-stage goat embryos they had successfully deleted two genes that suppressed both hair and muscle growth. The result was 10 goat kids exhibiting both larger muscles and longer fur—designer livestock—that, so far, show no other abnormalities. “We believed gene-modified livestock will be commercialized after we demonstrate [that it] is safe,” predicts Qu
While the left is still battling GMO crops, and the right is battling climate science, scientists are forging ahead genetically modifying goats and dogs and soon it will be "gene-modified livestock."  The joke is on every one of us, who do not appreciate what is coming!

So, anything else to spook us?
“The ethical concerns are now upon us because the technology is real,” [George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School] adds.
This applies to CRISPR experiments to “edit” the DNA of all plants and animals—as well as in the future, perhaps, humans, if scientists like Qu further hone the technique. ... And on the even more complicated topic of potential CRISPR experiments involving human DNA, he wonders, “Can we draw a clear line between what might be allowable for medical research or applications and what we must strictly prohibit?” Finding an answer that the whole world can agree on is geneticists’ and ethicists’ next big task.
Over at the New Yorker, which also had a lengthy essay on CRISPR, Doudna describes a dream that she recently had:
Her eyes narrowed, and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “I have never said this in public, but it will show you where my psyche is,” she said. “I had a dream recently, and in my dream”—she mentioned the name of a leading scientific researcher—“had come to see me and said, ‘I have somebody very powerful with me who I want you to meet, and I want you to explain to him how this technology functions.’ So I said, Sure, who is it? It was Adolf Hitler. I was really horrified, but I went into a room and there was Hitler. He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.’ I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”
I am now all the more convinced that I will be better off not reading such stuff.  I can only hope that Michael Specter is right:
CRISPR technology offers a new outlet for the inchoate fear of tinkering with the fundamentals of life. There are many valid reasons to worry. But it is essential to assess both the risks and the benefits of any new technology. Most people would consider it dangerous to fundamentally alter the human gene pool to treat a disease like AIDS if we could cure it with medicine or a vaccine. But risks always depend on the potential result. If CRISPR helps unravel the mysteries of autism, contributes to a cure for a form of cancer, or makes it easier for farmers to grow more nutritious food while reducing environmental damage, the fears, like the many others before them, will almost certainly disappear. 
Thinking about my favorite topic is so cheery in comparison! ;)


Ramesh said...

Yes, a sensitive issue which we have visited a couple of times before. I find, as you might expect, Doudna's views extreme, and the dream frankly scaremongering. Specter is more balanced.

The Economist dealt with this in a fairly rational manner here. There are many safeguards considered and I found the ban on gene alteration that can be inherited to be an intriguing safeguard.

Sriram Khé said...

Nope ... you maybe seriously discounting the importance of two things here:
1. Doudna is the co-creator of this gene-editing technology that is compared to a word-processor for genetic modification. When she is expressing caution, it is not by any means to be labeled as "extreme" views ...
2. The Economist did that special report well before the Chinese scientists reported on their goats and dogs in September.
Now, with this, you might want to rethink the issue.

Anne in Salem said...

How do the scientists determine the long-term effects of such manipulation? Do they look at the offspring of the modified animals? The offspring of the offspring? What if two mutated goats mate? It seems like there would have to be decades of study before this could become mainstream. And if people won't eat corn with GMOs, what makes the scientists think they'll eat animals that are GMO? Seems like there are many, many questions that must be answered before this becomes common practice.

The dream addresses a potential reality should this technology become widely available to scientists. Humans have shown the depths of their depravity. No common sense rules or laws will prevent an evil mind from manipulating the technology to his advantage or to his purpose.

Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.

Sriram Khé said...

Aren't you now thinking that I have a point in counting down my existence? hehehe ;)
It is not only about eating animals ... this whole technology is on "the inevitable march toward editing human genes" ... in that New Yorker piece, in which Doudna describes her nightmare, she also says this: “I lie in bed almost every night and ask myself that question,” she said. “When I’m ninety, will I look back and be glad about what we have accomplished with this technology? Or will I wish I’d never discovered how it works?”
We will find out one way or the other ...

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