Gene Modification: Helpful Tips For Both Beginners and Experts
By Space Coast Daily // July 28, 2021
As we discover more about genetics and more genomes will be sequenced; scientists will refine gene editing to the point that we can safely and effectively modify the world around us even further.
Additionally, widespread genetic modification of crops, livestock, and even humans, has meant that gene modification has moved out of the lab and into the real world. But what is it exactly, and what does it mean for humans and the planet we inhabit?
What Is Gene Modification?
A genetic modification (or GM) is a form of evolutionary change to a living organism. It is the process of modifying the genetic makeup of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. It is a change in the DNA of an organism that alters the traits of that organism. Humans have practiced genetic modification since the dawn of agriculture, by which other animals and crops were bred based on desirable characteristics.
Although ancient humans may not have done this intentionally in the first cases, it didn’t take long for humans to discover that breeding a large bull with a large cow will result in large offspring. Additionally, you can see how much the things we eat have evolved due to human intervention. As a result, you could say it’s a form of accelerated evolution.
GM has taken on an entirely new form in the modern world and can now alter vast swathes of our lives. Many philosophical and ethical deliberations come along with each advancement, from the great GM crop debate to the “designer baby” arguments. The latest step forward in this file came from the discovery of CRISPR technology which can utterly change the direction of travel for humans in the coming years.
Although most of the reporting on this technology ends up in hyperbole, the fact remains that it is a powerful tool that will enable discoveries that could help to cure deadly, chronic diseases to designing even higher-yielding crops.
What is CRISPR?
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, otherwise known as CRISPR (CAS9), is a method of genome editing that makes it possible to edit any gene in the body with ease and precision.
Essentially, it uses an enzyme called CAS9 that allows geneticists to modify specific genes by “cutting” them open and replacing them with a more beneficial strand of DNA. For instance, a slight alteration may mean the difference between being born with Cystic Fibrosis or not.
These mechanisms are derived from bacteria and archaea’s natural defense mechanisms. These organisms use RNA made from CRISPR and various CAS proteins for protection from viruses and other external invaders. By destroying the DNA of foreign invaders, they prevent them from reproducing. In other, more complex organisms, these components can be transferred and used to manipulate genes. Nature has evolved this as a way for bacteria to protect themselves against bacteriophages and has been going on for eons.
What Does This Mean For Humans?
Gene modification of humans to eliminate diseases like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy has captured the public’s attention. However, there are almost unlimited applications that can be derived from CRISPR and gene editing in general.
The revelation that gene modification could cure otherwise incurable diseases has completely upended the world of medicine. As most people understand, prevention is typically the best cure.
Gene modification, therefore, could prevent unborn children from suffering from a particular disease decades before they may have ever seen any symptoms. In addition to preemptively curing illness, it could also reduce the chances of external sickness by removing malaria from mosquitoes. Some of the significant impacts that it could have on humans include:
■ Treating Alzheimer’s disease: Gene modification and CRISPR, in particular, are used to locate the genes responsible for causing this neurodegenerative disease. Upon establishing its exact cause, they can change the DNA of embryos whose family has a higher risk.
■ Cure HIV: HIV is a virus, and CRISPR was originally evolved by bacteria to remove harmful viruses from their cells. This form of modification could reduce the impact of HIV significantly by eliminating the virus from the DNA of patients.
■ Create new cancer treatments: Cancer is a life-changing disease for anyone unfortunate enough to suffer from it. In this particular field, gene editing focuses on providing the body with the tools it needs to target and destroy cancer cells successfully.
The agriculture industry is a logical first step for experimenting with this technology, as much has already been invested before CRISPR existed. Two use cases can be identified:
1. Livestock: Tests have been successfully carried out to increase the muscle mass of animals, which means that farmers can harvest more meat per animal to satisfy the almost insatiable worldwide appetite for meat. Additionally, it could allow for a larger wool yield per sheep, supporting the unstoppable demand for clothing, not to mention the disease resistance it could create.
2. Crops: The GM debate is already well-known, but it continues the steady march forward. These technologies can enhance an already impressive increase in crop yields and pest resistance of the last decade.
Despite the amazing discoveries and scientific advancements, the topic has been contentious. With some sides claiming that such techniques are too dangerous and could lead to humans with increased intelligence, enhanced strength, and other pernicious changes, there has been some significant resistance. Most of the pushback against gene editing tends to come from religious countries that object to what they perceive as an unnatural alteration of a divine nature.
However, in other countries, specifically China, there are no such qualms due to their large population and different interpretation of religion and ethics. Nevertheless, most countries can see the overall benefit of genetic modification and are putting a lot of funding into more research to enable even more precise control and find new ways to use this paradigm-shifting technology.
Gene modification has been around since the first human unknowingly decided to plant the seed of a delicious crop. Humans now can edit DNA precisely, having been fine-tuned over the past fifty years. This is all due to discovering how bacteria defend themselves from viruses, which has changed the world ever since.