A revolutionary new class of genetic tools is gaining momentum. CRISPR allows scientists to precisely target and cut strands of DNA in any kind of biological material in a rapid, economical way: it has never been so easy to manipulate the code of life in any organism on earth. Possibilities with the DNA-editing tool are endless: the elimination of diseases, the enhancement of our body and optimization of the nutritional value of food. The applications of CRISPR have and will have wide-spread hegemonic and societal impact.
- CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR systems naturally evolved in the bacterial kingdom for remembering and defending against viruses and consist of a protein with sequence-snipping capabilities and a GPS-like system to locate its target strand. Different researchers made this discovery around the same time in 2012 and developed a way to steer a CRISPR-Cas9 complex (a CRISPR from the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes that relies on the protein Cas9) to specific targets on a genome and disable, replace or insert DNA sequences.
- Later, researcher Feng Zhang built on these findings and proved that CRISRP-Cas9 could work in mammalian systems, thus also in humans.
- Towards the end of last year, scientists created a sort of CRISPR 2.0, a more precise version of CRISPR that can edit even smaller segments of a person’s genome, namely just a single base. The human genome contains 6 billion DNA bases (A, C, G and T).
- CRISPR is a promising gene-editing tool for many industries, from the pharmaceutical industry, agri-food sector, energy, to materials manufacturing. For example, CRISPR may bring us creations such as crops resistant to climate change, supernutritious food, new classes of antibiotics and other medicines, and designer chemicals and materials (e.g. self-healing concrete, fire-resistant, plant-based building materials lighter than aluminum, biodegradable plastics), all at scale.
- It is of strategic importance to countries to reach biosupremacy, as we wrote earlier. China and the U.S. are leading the race. According to a Goldman Sachs report, China is outpacing the U.S. in developing CRISPR treatments. The country is investing heavily in CRISPR and 86 Chinese cancer and HIV patients have been cured with the tool since 2015. Meanwhile, American scientists were the first to successfully repair a genetic disease gene in an embryo with CRISPR last year. However, a trial planning to use the gene-editing tool CRISPR on sickle-cell patients was recently put on hold by the U.S. FDA.
Connecting the dots
In 2015, when four gene-editing methods were used, the CRISPR-Cas system was selected by journal Science as Breakthrough of the Year. It was seen as a revolutionary technology because it was considered a fundamentally different way of editing genes. To edit DNA, CRISPR does not have to add foreign genetic material, such as plant pathogens, to create a plant with a desired genetic alteration. Furthermore, with the latest advances in CRISPR systems, genes can be switched on and off and the genome can be surveilled to fix mutations without slicing the DNA. This does not only make the editing more precise, but also faster and cheaper compared to other methods, accelerating the potential that lies with gene editing.
Genome editing in bacteria, plants, animals and humans is seemingly being democratized by CRISPR. The means to rewriting the code of life will soon be available to a variety of scientists and entrepreneurs. This has spurred enthusiasm, as with this easy to use and economical CRISPR tool, we are moving closer to the possibility of editing genes ourselves. It has led many citizen scientists to attempt to edit DNA with DIY-CRISPR kits. However, real applications will not happen in the sphere of biohackers or DIY biologists any time soon, since the technique requires expertise and a well-equipped lab. What we will see in the near future, is an increased commercialization of the biological sphere, because CRISPR holds nearly limitless commercial possibilities. Big Pharma and biotech firms particularly are racing to develop CRISPR technology, increasing international competition. For instance, three German pharmaceutical giants, Bayer, Merck and Curevac, have invested over $400 million in the gene-editing technology. Moreover, the latest advances in CRISPR have led to high-level transnational collaboration of private and public parties across countries. For example, in France, the platform Médicine France génomique 2025 aims to share genome information and technology.
While the beginning of the CRISPR’d era leads to great excitement and to corporations and countries trying to stay ahead, it has equally provoked many concerns. CRISPR, as a major technology in biotechnology, has reenergized fears about biological warfare. On a societal level, CRISPR further pushes the boundaries of biology into new spaces and will disrupt the way we live in the longer-term. Americans repaired a genetic disease in an embryo with CRISPR in 2017, which spurred the debate on designer babies. However, scientists are still working to determine whether this approach is safe and effective for use in people and changes introduced with genome editing are limited to somatic cells. According to researchers, it will be years or even decades before we can edit germ cells (sperm or eggs). But as the genetic revolution continues, it is conceivable that we will move from curing diseases to mainstream human enhancements. The numerous personal traits written in our genomic data will be assessed by data companies. A new era of eugenics, with the aim of improving humans, may be lurking around the corner when we begin actively editing and producing human traits.
Unsurprisingly, regulation is an important but complex topic when it comes to gene-editing. The policy landscape for gene editing is highly contingent, since the development of the technology is often ahead of regulation and since national standards are needed, while many related issues cut across borders. Inevitably, the technology has accelerated the pace of international research and applications in many domains, starting by shaping both medicine and agriculture in the near future.
- CRISPR will first reach consumers by food products in the near term, probably in commodity crops, specialty fruits and vegetables. The technology allows for quick crop enhancement and the U.S. has already given a free regulatory pass to gene-edited crops. In the bigger picture, agriculture faces many challenges (droughts, pests, nutritional value) that can be addressed with CRISPR and that will further speed up the agricultural development. The first GM foods had similar promises but stirred up debates and protests because large corporations were criticized for not including farmers and consumers in decision-making and benefits. This could enable smaller players to gain trust with the new technology.
- Although the shares of CRISPR therapeutics companies have tripled since 2018, they are still in an early, risky phase of development.