How do we feel about Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOS)? Are they a health scourge that hides in plain sight? Are frankenfruits and lab-grown meats potentially dangerous? Are we trying too hard to play God? GMOs, like vaccines, are a divisive medical issue even within the Whole Foods demographic. Scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson have come out in favor of their general use, while hugely popular documentaries like Food Inc. and King Corn paint an ominous picture of their possible health consequences. If you’re still undecided about the issue, it may be time to step off the fence, because an unbelievably effective gene-isolating method called CRISPR is going to make gene manipulation cheaper, more precise, and universally applicable to any plants or animals.
Researchers at DuPont Pioneer just published a study detailing their use of CRISPR to successfully engineer a drought-resistant strain of corn for a fraction of the cost of typical genetic modification.
What Is CRISPR and Should It Scare Me?
CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (duh). We’ll come back to that shortly. Let’s start with the broad strokes for how the relevant processes work inside each and every cell on Earth, and why this technology should become a familiar part of your vocabulary. A brief metaphor, if you will…
Imagine a cell is a supermarket full of genes (products, customers, etc.) and gene manipulators (security guards and store clerks). Let’s say I’m a virus that walks inside with the intention of stealing some salsa. Because of my strange behavior, a worker in the store comes up to me, pats me down, and catches me with my hand in a salsa jar. The guard immediately takes a picture of me and bans me from the store. Now, whenever I come back there’s a mugshot that easily identifies me. That’s what the Cas9 enzyme does in your body when a virus enters; it identifies it, gets its genetic “mugshot” as data, and then stores that data in those “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” I mentioned.
When scientists learned about these “security guard” enzymes that had the ability to investigate genes and even alter them, they realized they could instruct this enzyme to find and change anything they wanted in the entire cell. My metaphor kind of falls apart here, so back to the actual science: the Cas9 just wraps itself around a strand of DNA, breaks it apart, and replaces one thing with another. Here’s a helpful / mind-blowing graphic:
This opens up some strange and exciting possibilities. You could perhaps reduce the chance of Alzheimer’s by targeting the APOE gene; or cure Huntington’s disease, hemophilia, or any of the afflictions that affects only one particular gene. You can definitely get weirder too.
You could make a Woolly Mammoth by replacing some elephant DNA (and while we’re at it, as Gary Gulman indignantly asks, could we finally drop the “Woolly”?). You could engineer dogs to be hairy little jacked-up Schwarzeneggers—like scientists in China did with Beagles. You could genetically engineer mosquitoes to contain lethal genes so that when they go into the wild to mate, they kill off a huge population of Zika carriers—like biotech company Oxitec wants to do. And, at least in theory, you can make humans taller, healthier, smarter, and more resistant to diseases. “We could rebuild them,” in other words. The Cas9 enzyme is the same in humans as it is in bacteria, so this method knows no bounds.
China has also already jumped into the murky waters of CRISPR engineering with highly controversial testing on human embryos. Results have been mixed. Cas9 genes often miss their intended target or copy in the wrong information. It turns out that the security guards have some personal issues to work out—typical for such a stressful line of work. Human embryos are also problematic at a higher level. If you thought injecting stem cells was “playing God,” like the Bush Administration did when they outlawed the practice a few years ago, you’re not going to like CRISPR. You could, in theory, make an adjustment to an embryo that is then copied into every cell of the body, and perhaps even spread across generations. With animals and plants, the worry is that these changes will become contagious before we know their effects.
Not To Sound Corny…
Outside of controversial embryonic trials, the success rate of CRISPR has been far greater. Now with Dupont’s paper, we’re one step closer to using this technology in actual consumer products like food. That means that this news is somewhat of an unveiling party.
Genetic modification of corn is nothing new, but the methodology has been clumsy and imprecise. Typically the DNA of one plant is added to another, making it last longer or look better. The cells used to create the corn are flooded with this external gene using a virus or gene gun. Dupont researchers were able to use CRISPR to accomplish a more targeted addition of the ARG0S8 gene, which is correlated with higher yields during a drought. The crops were tested and performed much better in dry conditions. Not bad timing considering that California—America’s fruit basket—is still in a historic drought.
It’s not the first time CRISPR has been used to modify food, and the USDA has already stated that it will not be regulating these modifications in the same way GMOs are regulated. CRISPR corn, mushrooms, and other foods (CRISPR Kreme Doughnuts?) could hit shelves in a few years. One Swedish man just served the first CRISPR-modified meal: pasta and cabbage.
Our Kids Will All Know The C-Word
Activists against Big Agriculture probably won’t be happy about this moving forward without the same regulatory oversight as other GMOs; Big Agriculture doesn’t think it should be classified as GMO at all. What a glorious shitshow. We’ve got corn, America’s public enemy number 1 when it comes to crops. We’ve got drought, America’s number 1 ecological problem next to hurricanes. We’ve got Dupont, the company whose heir murdered an Olympic gold medalist at Foxcatcher Ranch in the 90s. We’ve got GMOs, one of the most controversial food innovations of our time. And we’ve got a tool that can allow us to make fine changes anywhere in the body without any nanobots or tiny instruments.
Make no mistake, this could be the first foreshock of a biological earthquake—the moment the entire gene pool got covered in our fingerprints. There’s a CRISPR kit on Indiegogo that sells for $75, for God’s sake. Your nephew could be creating a radioactive worm or helping us beat cancer as you read this sentence. Whatever you think about GMOs or CRISPR or acronyms in general, they’re here to stay, and they’re available to almost anyone.
There’s a phrase in baseball that you’ll hear sometimes in reference to an extremely easy-to-catch pop fly: “can of corn.” It’s a throwback to the late 1800s when grocers would use a stick to effortlessly tip a corn container off a top shelf and into their calm, expecting palm. Corn was once a symbol of simplicity. With the help of CRISPR, it just graduated to a spokesperson for the future.
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