Jayde Martin highlights the role of evolution in developing the genome editing tool
What’s natural about genetic engineering? That’s the first question I hear you ask. I would like to argue that it is, indeed, nothing short oforganic. CRISPR/Cas9 is a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts ofthe genome by removing, adding or altering sections ofthe DNA sequence. Significantly, its inspirational origin is based on that ofa type ofmutational change – a natural development consequently, this type of genome editing can be classed as ‘natural’. CRISPR/Cas9 is modelled offan entirely organic process in bacteria: scientists have learnt to utilise the adaptive immune response of Staphylococcus aureus to a viral infection, as a genetic modification template. This is important to help the human species overcome predisposed genetic conditions that could lead to rapid degenerative decline and early death. Here, we have a case ofa scientific technique derived from a natural process, to further manage and expand human life expectancy. For this alone, I would like to state that genetic engineering is, in fact, natural.
The immune response ofa bacterium, such as S. aureus, to a viral infection is the result ofprokaryotic evolution. The bacteria create two RNA strands, one ofwhich mirrors the DNA sequence ofthe virus in question. These two RNA strands then form a complex with Cas9, which is essentially a nuclease, the cut and paste enzyme of the biological world. Cas9 takes a section ofthe viral DNA, severs it, and then matches the RNA to the viral DNA. It essentially robs the virus ofits original DNA, without which the virus cannot replicate. Cas9 and its mischievous RNA strands have a 20 set base pair to match the viral DNA–many ofthese Cas9 enzymes will take different sections of the virus to fully incapacitate it, by snatching strands ofits entire DNA sequence. So how does this relate to the manipulation and mutation ofthe human genome? Instead of20 base pairs ofRNA that matches virus DNA, Cas9 can be used to target 20 base pairs ofthe human genome, replicate it, and cut. Controlling what and where CRISPR/Cas9 cuts is how we exploit this natural process as a tool for our own means–just like we did with fire and the invention ofthe wheel.
The prevailing fear of changing our genes is arguably outdated, so the important question to pose is: why does our control over it scare us? Yes, there are fears ofneo-eugenicism (an ideology concerned with improving a species, through influencing or encouraging reproduction with parents that have desirable genetic traits). However, through awareness and consideration of disability studies, identity politics, and even the study ofpost-colonialism, we, as the next generation ofresearchers, can avoid the mistakes ofthe past. It is time to change the way in which we perceive genetic engineering. Shedding the image that dystopian science fiction has painted it to be, I believe we can make it something different. We can inclusively adapt genetic engineering to our advantage: its potential application in genetic therapies is promising for carriers of genetic disorders, such as phenylketonuria, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell syndrome. Instead ofthe messy idea oferadicating ‘disease’, we can develop a genetically-diverse spectrum ofindividuals, and reinstate the right to a full and longer life in individuals who would otherwise succumb to genetic disorders. Genetic modification should always be considered alongside identity politics and ethics. But instead of blindly fearing advances in biotechnology, we should opt to utilise it sensibly to improve the quality of living–after all, it is ofa naturally occurring process!