Decoding: Edit genes at will with CRISPR

In animal experiments, CRISPR technology is used to raise disease-resistant poultry or pigs. Or mosquitoes that do not bite or lay eggs. Scientists are also trying to develop disease-resistant plants, such as grapes. That’s not all: Some researchers want to breed genetically modified pigs whose organs can be transplanted into humans. Others are working to bring back extinct animals such as homing pigeons, based on the genomes of surviving relatives of birds.

Science hesitates before using it in the human genome. Recent experiments have shown that Cas9 not only cuts DNA at the desired site, but also pulls away from it. Even if it all worked out, using CRISPR on people to modify their genetic material at will is highly questionable from an ethical point of view. If wealthy parents can alter their children’s DNA to make them stronger or smarter, inequality and exclusion will increase.

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In 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed he used CRISPR technology to create HIV-resistant children. It is unclear if this was successful. However, because he violated applicable laws, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

In exceptional cases, the danger to humans can still be justified. In 2020, volunteer American researchers injected the molecule CRISPR. They wanted to use it to fix a genetic mutation that leads to blindness. Many experts hope that CRISPR-based therapies will one day treat genetic diseases. The results of previous animal trials look very promising. However, it will be a long time before CRISPR medical treatments become a part of everyday life.

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