CRISPR gene editing is revolutionising food production, but is using it on humans a step too far?

CRISPR is allowing scientists to edit genes with precision. The process is already being used on plants, but should it be extended to humans?

New technology is allowing scientists to ‘edit’ specific genes within an organism. The CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) method is opening up a world of possibilities in agriculture and medicine. Favourable traits can be introduced into crops without the previous need for cross-breeding, which can be slow and unreliable. Because the method introduces no foreign genes into the organism, it avoids many of the ethical questions of genetic modification. Current research is confined to plants, but the possible applications are staggering. Taken to its logical conclusion CRISPR could allow us to cure diseases, rid people of allergies and even bring back extinct species.  However, questions still remain about the extent to which the new process should be regulated, and about negative side effects that could arise from tampering with genes in this way.


How does it work?


In 2015 the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), named CRISPR the breakthrough technology of the year, saying that ‘it’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make it happen’.


An early version of the process was discovered by the dairy industry in 2007 and has been used there ever since. Researchers discovered that bacteria contained snippets of viruses that had attacked them in the past which acted as a sort of acquired immune system. CRISPR sequences are spaced apart by Cas (CRISPR associated system) genes which retain traces of the viruses that have attacked them.


At the time the dairy industry would often lose entire batches of yoghurt to viruses called phages. Industry researchers discovered that CRISPR spacers could provide immunity to phages by providing a blueprint for finding and destroying the unwanted DNA. This allowed them to produce phage-resistant yoghurt and cheese, vastly improving productivity. Dairy companies have been using this method ever since. Martin Kullen, a senior figure in research and development at Dupont Nutrition and Health, told The Scientist that ‘It’s a very efficient way to get rid of viruses for bacteria.’


The CRISPR/Cas method can be used to target and ‘cut out’ specific genes in a process called Targeted Genome Cleavage. This allows scientists to identify the genes which caused favourable traits in an organism and insert them into other examples of the same organism. This article describes how seed firm DuPont Pioneer are creating a new waxier variety of corn. Previously, such an effect could only be achieved through generations of selective breeding, and the desirable traits often came with other negative traits that cancelled out their effect, all of which occurs over an intergenerational timeline. Now, as Zachary Lipman from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory says, ‘We can go straight after the traits we want. It’s basically a freight train that isn’t going to stop.’ From waxier corn to faster-ripening tomatoes, CRISPR  is already producing amazing results in agriculture and food production, but can it be extended to humans?


Ruining human evolution?


Few people have ethical concerns over CRISPR-modified plants. The fact that the process uses genes already present in the species means that it doesn’t raise the spectre of ‘Frankenfoods’ that has plagued the conversation around genetic modification. However, things become a lot more complicated when we begin to discuss using gene editing on humans.


In July, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University successfully ‘edited’ human embryos to correct a gene mutation that can cause the heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Although these embryos weren’t allowed to develop into babies, it was the closest we have come to using CRISPR on living humans. Jennifer Doudna, a CRISPR pioneer from the University of California, praised the experiment, saying ‘It feels a bit like a ‘one small step for (hu)mans, one giant leap for (hu)mankind’ moment.’


Not everyone is so excited though. While eliminating heart disease in babies seems like a noble pursuit, many fear that it begins a slippery slope towards eugenics and ‘designer babies.’  


Writing for Time Magazine , Jim Kozubek, author of Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9, argues passionately against using the process on humans. He warns that tampering with the evolutionary process is an example of arrogant hubris and could have serious unforeseen consequences. CRISPR could see the rise of ‘market based eugenics’, in which conditions such as Down’s Syndrome or Autism are eradicated in vitro. While this would make life easier for many parents, the ethics of assuming that a life with autism is inherently worse than a life without it are questionable.


Many apparently negative conditions come with other positive side effects. It is also impossible to blame conditions such as autism on one particular gene. Kozubek points out that “Biology straddles risk like a money manager.” The body hedges its bets by spreading its traits. There can be many genes that increase the risk of certain conditions by a fraction and it is not feasible to eradicate all of them, especially as some of them may have positive effects elsewhere.


Natural evolution is the closest thing to a perfect system of human development. Seen from a human point of view it is impossibly slow, but it always succeeds in the end. It is arrogant of us to think that we can speed it in a certain direction. Like changing the course of a river, there will be consequences downstream. As the evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel famously said, “Evolution is smarter than you are.”


A helping hand for innovators


CRISPR looks set to revolutionise both agriculture and medicine. Even Kozubek acknowledges that, whatever the ethical concerns, ‘the method is here to last.’  If your company is working on an innovative project in either of these areas, you may be eligible for an Innovate UK Grant.  Innovate UK are currently offering a share of £15 million to companies of all sizes who are working to develop innovations in health and life sciences. The competition covers several areas, including medicines discovery and increasing agricultural productivity, a full list of the technology areas support can be found here.


Because the grants are awarded competitively, your application will have to stand out from the crowd. That’s where we can help. We have an 83% success rate with Innovate UK life science applications and decades of experience with Innovate UK grants. As such we can ensure your application stands the best possible chance of success.
Get in touch today and let’s get to work.

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