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If genetic editing wasn’t crazy enough for your reality, a recent breakthrough in CRISPR technology has paved the way for editing entire gene networks in a single step. While this discovery will likely shorten the timeframes required for finding cures for deadly illnesses, it can also bring us closer to threats of bioterrorism.
Scientists at ETH Zurich recently published a new CRISPR technique in Nature Methods that removes one of the most significant limitations of the technology. Prior to this discovery, the process could only target a single gene for editing. The ETH scientists now managed to target 25 at once and believe that, theoretically, this method could target hundreds. Here’s how they describe the process:
[W]e demonstrate that both Cas12a and a clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR) array can be encoded in a single transcript by adding a stabilizer tertiary RNA structure. By leveraging this system, we illustrate constitutive, conditional, inducible, orthogonal and multiplexed genome engineering of endogenous targets using up to 25 individual CRISPR RNAs delivered on a single plasmid. Our method provides a powerful platform to investigate and orchestrate the sophisticated genetic programs underlying complex cell behaviors.
While the method only increases CRISPR’s efficiency, time plays a significant role in genetic editing. Complex genetic conditions occur through the interaction of genes in a cell. Targeting each gene individually to test a different configuration takes a long time and that process can require significant repetition in order to discover the desired genetic variation. Reducing the time required to produce each variant makes the discovery process significantly more efficient. That may lead to finding important gene therapies that can cure morbid conditions with daily death tolls. With antibiotic resistance on the rise, many expect CRISPR will offer a viable alternative to a problem the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls “one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health.”
However, genetic editing comes with a number of dangers and they go beyond making tragic mistakes in human trials. Currently, you can buy a DIY CRISPR kit for $165. For the cost of Apple’s new Mac Pro package, 72 people could learn genetic editing at home. That’s wonderful and amazing until a kit arrives at the home of someone willing to commit and act of mass violence. While it’s much easier to buy an assault rifle in the United States than it is to learn CRISPR—as evidenced by an Engadget writer learning the process—it only takes one person to decide to trade in their AR-15 for a bio-engineered weapon that could bring the death toll from more than four people to millions.
On the bright side, we still have time. Some believe that CRISPR will serve as a shield to threats of bioterrorism that are easier to create with older gene hacking techniques from a simpler time. Millions have been invested in making CRISPR a safe technology that won’t first result in a health epidemic. An advance in the timeframe for genetic editing can look like a good thing with actions like that.
Right now there’s no cause for panic or celebration because CRISPR technology won’t mature overnight. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t waste any time getting ready. Everything we make is a double-edged sword and we need to be prepared for any direction it swings. Fortunately, for just 0.5 percent of the cost of that Mac Pro package, you can acquire the resources to learn the science that can help prevent an epidemic.