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What should happen when we can edit our DNA?

6 July 2016 7:01 PM
by

Changing DNA could spare organisms from disease or enhance their performance. Once it was only a question. Soon it will be real.

The CRISPR/Cas9 system is a story of highly specialised chemistry and biology that after the latest breakthroughs promise to include a high stakes court drama over contested patents potentially worth billions and a future that could be straight out of a Hollywood Sci-fi blockbuster.

The story begins with with our discovery and understanding of DNA and genes, the stuff of life that regulates how all living cells operate and reproduce. That was in the 50s.

Fast forward to the late 80s and 90s and scientists begin noting some regularly repeating sequences in the DNA of bacteria.

Then, in the last 16 years, that understanding moves to note that the reason is to protect the bacteria from viral infection and that the repeating sequences separate the identifying genetic code of the virus improving its immune system.

The specific description of this ancient flu protection method is called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats or CRISPR. It was also found that an enzyme called Cas9 played a critical role in the process.

Then things get tricky.

Scientific study is typically based on the previous findings of others and the testing of peers to confirm the discovery or invention. Two sets of researchers were working on the CRISPR/Cas9 system and published the discovery that along with a form of RNA can target and cut a specific genetic sequence from a DNA strand and combine it again with another piece.

The question about who first discovered this is the subject of a patent court case.

The case is so important because it appears the relatively simple and effective means for editing DNA could have a wide ranging impact on crops and livestock improvements. It could help avoid hereditary diseases from being passed on to offspring and even treat diseases in living cells like cancer or HIV.

Once we can control for things that go wrong we can begin to consider what things may make humans more efficient.

This process is one of those highlighted as part of the 4th Industrial revolution, the cyber physical revolution.

Consider the implications for longevity or for introducing rare but highly efficient processes in some humans. Dean Karnazes is one such individual. He ran 560 kilometres non-stop in 2005 which some believe is only possible because his body can manage the lactic acid build up in his body. Introducing the same opportunity into an athlete than can also run very fast and you have a far more difficult process to manage than the already vexing issue of doping.

It is still early days and lots more research would be needed to confirm the initial findings, but that is likely to be a question of "when" not "if". The bigger question will be who gets to do it and what you may charge to do so.


6 July 2016 7:01 PM
by

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