The Future

What does CRISPR-Cas9 do?

Did you ever think there could be ‘drama’ in science? Well, then let me tell you a bit about CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR and Cas9 were first discovered in 1993 and the results of the first application in a lab were published in 2012.

Coincidentally, at that time, two different groups of scientists were working on the technique in their respective labs. Both applied for a patent, ending in conflict. Both were researching the implications of CRISPR-Cas9 for plants and humans, and it became a slightly dramatic battle of who would publish it first or who had more novelty of the technique. 1 It’s been a battle of words and lawyers, but as far as we know, no fists were used.

So, what did these scientists discover? Read on to learn more about CRISPR-Cas9.

What can be done with CRISPR-Cas9?

This genetic engineering system gives scientists the opportunity to edit DNA in such a way that they might be able to eradicate diseases such as cancer or certain genetic disorders. It could be done by simply replacing a DNA base pair or deleting a DNA sequence responsible for genetic disorders. For example, CRISPR-Cas9 can detect cancer in our white blood cells.5

This system can also be used for animals and plants. Diseases and infections could be eliminated by making the animal or the plant immune to it. Plants could be made more resistant to climate and pests. In such ways, using CRISPR-Cas9 could also be used to help make agriculture more profitable and fruitful. 2,3,4

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Many people have voiced their concerns about CRISPR-Cas9, and even scientists have convened together to discuss the moral implications of genetic engineering and what ethical limitations they should set.

What are the regulations?

The perception of unnaturalness is at the root of most concerns. So, like any genetic modification system, many people still fear that CRISPR-Cas9 will open the doors to extreme modifications in our foods and even to us. What if future generations consist only of ‘designer’ humans, with features chosen by the parents? On the flip side, CRISPR-Cas9 can really help heal the suffering, eradicating disease and cancer. But then, what if ‘designer’ humans live forever, free of the problems fixed to mortality?

These are all legitimate worries and government organisations are proceeding with these technologies with extreme caution, especially when it comes to crops. There are heavy regulations and policies regarding market produce, so we won’t be eating anything ‘weird’ anytime soon.

As of 2018, crops edited with CRISPR-Cas9 fall under the 2001 EU directive on genetically modified organisms. This directive was originally aimed at the older gene modification. In 2016, this 2001 directive was reinterpreted with regard to the new techniques that have emerged since 2001.
They concluded that only techniques that have been thoroughly tested and proven to be safe are exempt from this directive, aka the old techniques that have already been proven to be safe. 6

Therefore, some scientists say CRISPR-Cas9 might not be working very well in the EU because of this directive, or it will take a really long time until it can be applied in the market because it first has to be tested to prove it’s safe through and through before it’s allowed to enter the market. 5

Plants and animals whose DNA have been altered are heavily regulated in the European market, while the implications of CRISPR-Cas9 on humans are still being researched.

If you want to know how exactly CRISPR-Cas9 works, click here.

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