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Granite Geek: How CRISPR Could Change Our Genes - And Our Lives

Imagine a world where people could choose genetic traits like eye color for their children. This science fiction could be fact due to new gene modification technology called CRISPR.

Here to explain this new technology is David Brooks. He’s a reporter for the Concord Monitor and a writer at Granite Geek.org.

So, explain for us briefly, what is CRISPR?

So, CRISPR is a technique for modifying and editing genes. Basically, what is does is it takes advantage of something that bacteria have been doing for zillions of years in a way of moving in and out of cells. It takes advantage of, uses them as a tool to get in, and using various enzymes to snip chromosomes and to take bits of them and move them somewhere else on the chromosome or take bits of them out and add different bits of chromosomes in. So it’s, to a certain extent we’ve been doing that for a while, but CRISPR is a methodology that makes it so much easier, so much faster, so much cheaper that it’s really quite a breakthrough.

And when you say we’ve been doing it for a while, do you mean like as opposed to selective breeding, which involves, you know, taking two parents who have desirable qualities, allowing them to mate naturally, having a child, and then using that child, whatever it is, to so on and so forth?

Sure, we’ve been obviously doing that for millennia, I guess

On farms mostly, right?

Right, but that’s sort of random. So, when you cross two parents, you get all sorts of different genes crossed. Gene editing techniques, which have been around for 20, 30, 40 years probably, are very specific. You only change the genes you want. That’s why genetically modified organisms are both scary and promising. Well, CRISPR’s basically a way to make GMO’s much more easily.

How would you like to be able to go in and genetically modify embryos so you can get rid of genetic diseases like, you know, Cystic Fibrosis or something, which is caused by flaws in our own internal make up? You could get rid of them, and they can’t be cured by a medicine. That would be terrific and you could do that with genetic modification, and particularly CRISPR.

So, the flip-side to curing diseases that are caused by genetic flaws is that people could theoretically start to have what I think I’ve heard called designer babies—babies with the exact kind of traits that they want.

Yes, and I remember seeing that Twilight Zone episode as well, but…

But it’s not just Twilight Zone, it’s real now.

Bingo! Well, that’s what’s kind of so astonishing about this. And there are other concerns, and there are other benefits, you know?  CRISPR can allow you to more easily make foods that are healthier for us or that can grow in drought conditions as climate change happens, things like that. On the other hand, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence has actually called it a weapon of mass destruction, because it raises the possibility that non-government groups, small groups can tweak the, weaponizE anthrax or something like that.

Or create some kind of super flu?

Super flu or something bad. You know, people are unfortunately pretty good at taking tools and using them to do bad things and this is a powerful tool.

So, let’s say I had all the money in the world and I was willing to try and create a designer child of some kind, would I be able to do this now? Would I just have to pay a company?

No. A., we don’t know enough, B., genetics is more much complicated than that and it’s not like, this gene here is eye color, and this gene here is hair color, and this here is personality. But, you could certainly start if you really wanted to. and five, ten years from now—obviously I’m a layman, so I’m sort of guessing—if I had to guess, I’d say this is the thing sort of happening in science now that has the most potential to affect our lives in the next ten years, The advent of CRISPR and what it can do to biology and genetics.

How else do you think it might affect our daily lives?

Hopefully by curing a disease that’s currently incurable. All the sudden—hey, presto, bingo folks, we can get rid of X. genetic disease that was always this horrible life sentence of misery. Or some horrible disease has broken out and, guess what, ISIS created it. Either of those two is not beyond the realm of possibility within the next ten years, I don’t think, so.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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