For a few hundred dollars you could be in the gene-editing business. It’s an alarming prospect.
You may have heard of CRISPR, for all the wrong reasons. You could, for example, have seen a Hollywood monster flick called Rampage that shows you things the gene-editing technology certainly can’t do: make very big versions of a gorilla, a wolf and a crocodile that terrorise humans.
Alternatively, you might have read the far scarier and by all accounts true story of Chinese researcher He Jiankui.
Back in November, He punched the science world in its collective face when he announced he’d used CRISPR to modify two human embryos with the aim of making them resistant to HIV.
It wasn’t the first time CRISPR (which stands for ‘‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’’) had been used to tinker with human embryos; in 2017 Chinese scientists used it to partially correct mutations causing the blood disease beta thalassaemia. But those embryos were discarded.
In a move of stunning audacity or reckless abandon – take your pick – He went further, implanting the embryos in a woman who subsequently gave birth to twins Lulu and Nana, who now claim the title of the world’s first genetically modified humans.
Global condemnation was swift, centred on the potential harms to the girls of “off-target” or errant effects of CRISPR leaving them vulnerable to other infections, and He’s side-stepping of the science community’s near-universal consensus against altering germline cells, a move that means changes will be passed to their offspring.
That kerfuffle and the near God-like power of CRISPR to reshape the genes of just about any species you can name, from bacteria to butterflies and indeed human babies, brings us to a rather awkward fact: Anybody can now do CRISPR at home.
Read the full feature in the the Age here