CRISPR technology brings precise genetic editing – and raises ethical questions
A group of leading biologists earlier this month called for a halt to the use of a powerful new gene editing technique on humans. Known by the acronym CRISPR, the method allows precise editing of genes for targeted traits, which can be passed down to future generations.
With this explainer, we’ll look at where this technique came from, its potential and some of the issues it raises.
CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, which is the name for a natural defense system that bacteria use to fend off harmful infections.
Bacteria are infected by other microorganisms, called bacteriophages, or phages. The intricate details of the mechanism were elucidated around 2010 by two research groups led by Dr Doudna of the University of California Berkeley and Dr Charpentier of Umeå University in Sweden.
The CRISPR system recognizes specific patterns of DNA from the foreign invaders and decapacitates them by cutting the invader’s DNA into pieces. The way that the bacteria target specific DNA and cleave it gave scientists a hint of its potential in other applications.
In 2013, two research groups, one lead by Dr Zhang of Massachusetts of Institute of Technology and the other by Dr Church of Harvard University, successfully modified this basic mechanism and turned it into a powerful tool that can now cut human genomic DNA at any desired location.
The ability to cut DNA or genes at specific locations is the basic requirement to modify the genome structure.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.