Why CRISPR? Why microbes? Why now?
In your wildest dreams, could you ever have imagined that someday your teen could be sitting in the basement with a DIY genetic engineering lab and create a new species? What happens if it were released into the wild and thrives, forever changing ecosystems?
Whether you like it or not, that day is here.
What is this technology? It’s called gene editing. And the most popular tool used in gene editing is called CRISPR. It has revolutionized the biotech industry and the science of genetic engineering in unimaginable ways, and at an incredible speed. That’s why CRISPR should be regulated now.
Almost anybody has the power to alter the genetic makeup of any and every species on Earth, from the comfort of their home. Anyone with an internet connection can buy a CRISPR lab online. They’re cheap and easy to use. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and ingenuity.
And that raises all sorts of alarm bells. If you think modifying a cow so it doesn’t grow horns is crazy, what about gene editing the most prevalent and dangerous organisms on Earth – microbes?
We already know the worldwide devastation that microscopic critters (like COVID-19) can have. Do you think it’s a good idea to let anyone and everyone have access to technology that can change the genetic makeup of viruses and bacteria and set them free (either intentionally or unintentionally)?
Regulations and policies need to keep up with the technology, and so far they aren’t. We don’t yet know all of the consequences or its effects.
So, let’s dive into what you need to know about microbes, gene editing, and what you can do today to protect future generations.
Let’s Not Repeat Past Mistakes
PCBs. Glyphosate. DDT. Asbestos. The 20th century saw the rise of chemicals as the solution to a lot of humankind’s problems. They were hailed as life savers and a sign of progress.
These chemicals were so good at what they were intended to do. They quickly became widely available – before they were properly tested and their side effects fully understood.
Back then very few people knew the long-term effects these chemicals would have on their health and that of their children. In the 1940s and ‘50s, consumers were flooded with flashy ads and tantalizing products touting the benefits that these chemicals would have on their lives.
But, as we now know, their benefits ended up being overshadowed by their damaging effects on our health and the environment. But it was too late. The damage had already been done. And we’re still paying the price.
For example, chemicals are one of the leading causes of cancer. Yet, we’re still manufacturing and using many that we know are bad for us. In the US, only nine chemicals are banned but over 80,000 are still available. Does their convenience outweigh the risks?
There’s only so much you can do to avoid chemicals in your everyday life, what if we had done our due diligence way back when? Would we have been able to avoid all of the cancer and all of the environmental damage caused by them?
Imagine if you could go back in time, like Marty McFly from Back to the Future. If you could warn people that pushing technology too quickly and without the proper oversight could end up causing so much damage, would you do that?
Nearly 100 years later, we are at that tipping point again. But instead of the rapid advancement of chemical technology, we are now dealing with the genetic editing of microbes. We still have a chance to slow down and regulate, before it’s too late once again. Let’s not make those same mistakes now.
The Importance of Microbes to Life on Earth
Microbes play an integral role in all life on Earth. Without them, we wouldn’t exist.
They encompass everything from viruses, bacteria, yeasts, algae, fungi, and other such microscopic creatures. Of course, you know there are bad microbes like common cold viruses. But there are beneficial microbes too, like probiotics.
Microbes live in the air, in water, on other creatures, in plants, and in soil. Your body is home to trillions of microbes. They live on your skin and inside of you. Microbes help keep your body in balance.
In your intestines alone, there are billions of microbes. This is your gut microbiome. And it’s only in the last two decades or so that research has shown us the hard work they do to keep us healthy.
Just like a large city, but on a microscopic scale, your gut microbiome is a bustling place that’s always in flux, trying to keep itself regulated and running smoothly.
What goes on inside your gut microbiome is also of critical importance to the rest of your body too. A healthy gut helps keep inflammation in check and it helps regulate brain activity as well. When your gut is out of whack, so too are other parts of your body.
For example, we are just now beginning to uncover the links between mental health and gut health. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Research into gut health, and of microbes in general, is still in its infancy.
The gut microbiome is just one area of interest to researchers. But, as we continue to uncover more facts about microbes and the roles they play in nature, it’s important to underscore that there’s still much more research to be done and discoveries to be made.
For example, so far we’ve only classified several thousand types of microbes, yet many scientists believe that’s only about 1% of the microorganisms on Earth.
What we do know about microbes is that they are everywhere, they’re vital to life, and that interestingly enough, they can swap genes with one another. So, in theory, if you edit one microbe’s genes, it could inadvertently end up swapping that new genetic information with another microbe, and then another, and another.
The consequences of that? Impossible to know, until it may be too late.
What Is Gene Editing?
Gene editing is a relatively new biotechnology technique that makes changes to any organism’s existing DNA. With gene editing, scientists can change, remove, or replace genetic code with the aim of achieving a desired outcome.
Could it someday be used to cure cancer? Perhaps. One possible application might be for human gene therapy. But it’s not ready for prime time since there are still a lot of dangerous side effects.
Our understanding of how DNA works is still developing. We’re finding out that gene editing is changing it in ways we never expected. As a result, beneficial applications really are limited.
One thing we do know is that this technology is moving fast. But how fast is too fast? Are we trying to run before we even learn to walk?
CRISPR – Gene Editing Made Simple
A lot of the rapid advancement in gene editing can be attributed to a technology called CRISPR. It’s actually a tool found in nature that was discovered by two scientists in 2012. Their discovery won them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.
In short, CRISPR is like a pair of genetic scissors that bacteria use to protect themselves from future viral attacks.
When a virus attacks a bacterium, the bacterium can use its built-in defense mechanism (CRISPR) to snag a piece of that virus’ DNA and splice it into its own DNA sequence. This helps the bacterium protect itself from future attacks by that virus or similar viruses.
Scientists have been able to adapt CRISPR as a tool to perform gene editing. So far, it’s the easiest and fastest method in use. It’s like the IKEA of gene editing. Did we mention that it’s cheap too?
Because it’s cheap and easy to use, CRISPR technology has made gene editing widely accessible. A quick Google search reveals several CRISPR kits that you can buy online and experiment with in your very own home. No scientific background is required. Just an innate curiosity and roughly $200.
Although these will provide just a few pre-set CRISPR experiments for you to perform, for about $2000 you can create a whole bunch of organisms that have never existed on Earth before.
The Unintended Side Effects of Gene Editing
CRISPR has rapidly advanced what we’re able to do with gene editing. Because of that, there has been a lot of experimentation, but with little pause for thought. We are opening the floodgates of genetic engineering on so many species without waiting to see what happens next.
There have been many documented instances of unintended consequences and side effects. The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) has produced a 6-minute film called “7 Reasons Why Gene Editing is Dangerous and Unpredictable” and has a database of references documenting these troublesome facts.
Even though CRISPR is used to cut out, and sometimes replace, or insert genes at a certain spot along a DNA strand, other sections of DNA have been altered or even deleted. In some instances, broken strands of DNA and even foreign DNA have been able to insert themselves into the edited strands causing unforeseen mutations.
Genetic code disappearing entirely, or being rearranged either at the target site or somewhere down the DNA strand is worrisome, to say the least.
Some edits even led to DNA producing new types of RNA and proteins, which could translate to new functions within that organism. Some of those new functions could produce unknown, and potentially, dangerous consequences.
So, what’s being done to regulate it?
Loopholes in Gene Editing/CRISPR Regulations
Current regulations regarding gene editing are all over the map. In the US, there are several departments that it falls under. It depends on the organism in question and why it’s being genetically engineered.
Most regulations were created before genetic engineering even existed. That means a lot of gene editing falls outside of current laws and doesn’t require any oversight at all.
Some biotech lobbyists have misrepresented the technology to government officials, claiming that it is entirely safe, precise, and natural. They’ve convinced governments to deregulate the practice so products can be put on the market without safety assessments and without you ever knowing. It has become a wild west.
Thankfully, there are independent scientists and organizations (like IRT) that are pushing for greater oversight and regulations because of the unintended risks and side effects.
Each country has its own set of regulations – or lack thereof – when it comes to gene editing. This has created a huge imbalance when it comes to safeguarding this technology. Basically, if a company doesn’t like the regulations in one country, it’s too easy to find another that will allow them to research and edit at will.
Whether or not you like the thought of experiments being conducted out in the real world, and maybe even in your own backyard, it is happening right now.
Gene-Edited Microbes: Designer Superbugs?
As far as microbes are concerned, in the US, the EPA treats gene-edited microbes as chemicals. We’ve already seen the dangers that chemicals cause when in our haste to make life more convenient, we forego the proper safeguards.
But this time, with gene-edited microbes, things could get far worse. Microbes aren’t chemicals and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Chemicals can dissipate, dilute, and degrade over time. Microbes, on the other hand, can multiply, swap genes, and become resistant. Microbes are survivors. They were here before us and they’ll be here long after we’re gone.
So, how can you control or contain something whose superpower is to survive and thrive? You can’t. This is why gene editing microbes in a highly regulated, highly safeguarded environment is the only way forward.
We know gene editing of microbes is already happening. And because of lax, poorly informed regulations, a lot of research is being conducted in schools, homes, and labs without the proper safeguards.
What happens if the perfect storm of a newly-gene-edited superbug happens to survive in nature and begins multiplying? There’s no way of turning back time if that ever happens.
Keeping the Gene in the Bottle
Some argue that the risk of something bad happening is very small. But with the accessibility of CRISPR technology, that risk is now multiplied many times over. So why even take that chance?
You know all too well how something as simple as a virus can bring the human population to its knees. And now, with the power to alter the future of any species on Earth comes a heavy duty to use that power responsibly.
Let’s not repeat the same mistakes we made with chemicals way back in the 1950s.
Join IRT and Safeguard the Future
Take action to protect the future of humanity. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch our powerful 16-minute film, “Don’t Let the Gene Out of the Bottle,” and sign up to receive valuable information, tips, and resources that will keep you informed and empower you to make your voice heard.