CRISPR-Cas9: Are We Entering a Genetic Revolution?

By Artemis Tapliga

The idea of a ‘genetic revolution’ is no longer reserved for the realm of science fiction. In 2012, Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier published their alteration of a molecular mechanism, called CRISPR-Cas9, to become the cheapest, simplest, and most accessible genome-editing tool in the market. This cutting edge technique resulted in an explosion of diverse research projects that have already utilized CRISPR-Cas9 in ways that have made us realize its applications and impact are almost immeasurable and surpass the idea of ‘designer babies’.

To understand the potential of this tool, it is important to first provide a brief overview of how CRISPR-Cas9 generally works. CRISPR-Cas9 originally refers to a bacteria’s immune system against viral attacks. Cas9 is an enzyme that attacks viral DNA and splices it into the bacteria’s own DNA to create new sequences called CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The bacteria then makes RNA copies of these viral sequences so that specific viral DNA can be recognized and dismantled in future attacks – in some ways similar to how our immune system operates. However, Dr. Doudna and Dr. Charpentier realized that by providing the Cas9 enzyme a certain sequence or guide RNA, scientists have the potential to accurately cut and insert parts of the DNA into any section of a given genome – in other words, making it possible to alter any organism’s genome with impressive precision and even create “gene drives” to eliminate diseases carried by pests (i.e. malaria found in mosquitos).

Perhaps one of the first large-scale applications of CRISPR-Cas9 technology will be directed towards tackling the issue of feeding a growing world population that is nearing the eight billion mark. This will come with special consideration towards developing countries riddled by hunger and famine that are not only induced by poverty, but also by climate change. Rising temperatures across the world have made crop yields prone to the increasing presence of drought conditions, like extreme heat and low rainfall. For countries shaped by poor institutions and governance, the negative impact of such natural disasters is even more severe.

In 2016, four African countries falling under such criteria had a total of 21.6 million food insecure people largely due to droughts – a statistic expected to grow as a result of climate change increasing the frequency of droughts. Vulnerable countries, like many in Africa, are then left not only with a malnourished population, but also increased rates of unemployment, high food prices, and a negatively impacted export sector and GDP. CRISPR-Cas9 can help revolutionize the agriculture industry in developing countries by altering plant genomes in order to encourage them to adapt to low-water conditions. In fact, this idea has already been experimented on one of the most important staple crops in Africa – maize. By increasing the expression of ARGOS8 – a negative regulator of natural ethylene responses to regulate stress under drought conditions – maize production experienced a successful increase in yields during drier periods.

Moreover, CRISPR-Cas9’s cheap and accessible characteristics make it a much more viable and sustainable option for solving agriculture crises in developing countries than most other tools. And this is only one potential application. Identifying and manipulating genes in crops opens the door even for developed countries to create plants resistant to insects and diseases, thus eliminating the need for harmful pesticides, and decreasing flowering times for plants to become relatively independent of sunlight in order to substantially increase individual crop yields.

However, the very attributes that make CRISPR-Cas9 an exciting new tool to implement can also make it very dangerous. In 2016, the Director of National Intelligence for the United States, James R. Clapper, stated that genetic editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9, present “far-reaching economic and national security implications” for the world due to their potential for creating harmful biological agents or products. The accessibility and low cost of CRISPR-Cas9 lowers the barrier for untrained personnel and ambitious non- state actors to experiment with various pathogens. In fact, do-it-yourself kits already exist, in some cases, for less than 500 USD and include various pathogen-specific components, as well as manuals. This opens up the possibility for almost anyone, even terrorist organizations, to develop sophisticated and dangerous biological weapons via selective genetic engineering of pathogens to target food supplies, populations, individuals, and even specific races.

Regardless of the pros and cons of this genetic engineering tool, however, CRISPR- Cas9 has implications that surpass the biotechnology world and will undoubtedly lead us into a ‘genetic revolution’. Thus, this requires educating citizens about CRISPR-Cas9 so they understand, at least in large, that this is a sophisticated technology. Without internalizing the fact that CRISPR-Cas9 has nuanced applications, people can easily fall prey to black and white solutions regarding its purpose and regulation.

This essay is the Third Place winner in the 2017 EWI Nextgen Essay Contest. Artemis Tapliga is a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, double-majoring in Economics and Government and minors in International Relations, Fine Arts, and European Studies. Upon completing her undergraduate degree in 2018, Artemis hopes to pursue further education and a career in international economic development, anti-corruption, Eastern European politics, and public policy.