“Dr. Josiah Zayner, a scientist, biohacker, and founder of the biotech company, The Odin, is a member of this futuristic group and the first person known to have edited his own DNA.”
This article clearly overstates the “results” of Zayner’s human experiments on himself for click-bait value, as the results are presently unknown.
After studying Genetics as part of my BSc. Zoology degree, we were asked to write an essay on the ethical implications of the new CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tools (happily, I got a first class mark). Indeed CRISPR raises a host of ethical questions and considerations. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) was discovered and developed by two scientists in separate universities from naturally occurring gene editing systems within bacteria. The scientists were Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. They saw the simple yet effective method by which bacteria’s immune defence systems literally cut out invading viruses using enzymes, including the Cas-9 enzyme. It cuts viral DNA when encountered and creates CRISPR arrays which allow the bacteria to ‘remember’ the virus. When encountering the virus again (or something similar) the bacteria then use RNA segments from these CRISPR arrays to target the viral DNA and cut it up, rendering it safe.
It is not dissimilar to mammalian immune systems, where proteins (immunoglobulins) are created in response to encountering antigens (foreign bodies), which can then be triggered if encountering the same (or similar) foreign bodies again. The CRISPR-Cas9 system can be likened to the cut, copy and paste tools in editing software – it is exactly what CRISPR does with genetic material. Scientists have worked out a way of utilising this system in the lab to edit genomes. It can cut out, put back and move genes around.
The downside? Research has some way to go before we fully understand what all of our genes do, and how they interact with each other. A gene in one location on a strand of DNA may interact with and affect a gene in another location far away on the same strand. We don’t yet understand all of the complex interactions between genes. We do know that there are usually many dormant genes within a genetic strand, remnants of the evolutionary past of an animal or plant. So if you cut out a gene, how might that affect other genes? If you put one in, will it trigger a dormant gene? In some cases, scientists know exactly how to trigger dormant genes.
It is somewhat reassuring to know that experimentation is primarily limited to somatic cells and that it is uncommon in most countries to carry out genome editing on germline or embryonic cells. There are countries which practice outside of any agreed ethical codes, or any rules are largely unenforceable, so that some scientists may already be carrying out genome editing experiments on embryos and germ cells. However, allowances have already been made for genome editing to be carried out on early embryos in the UK and other countries. What is truly terrifying is that all other animals are at the mercy of our whims in the world of genome editing experimentation.
It is clear that we are fairly radically playing with a puzzle without the benefit of the full picture to work with. Gene editing is still firmly in the experimental stages of its evolution, with some amazing results, and some truly horrifying results which the general public never see or hear about (think cloning labs – they exist and the success rate is very, very low).
This is the stuff of the future, of history, of nightmares and dreams…and of Marvel comic books. Bio hacking meet the world, a world full of unethical, immoral practices and people only too happy to abuse and destroy for short-sighted greed. What could go wrong? Zayner (and others) is literally opening Pandora’s box by making gene editing kits available to anyone who can afford the price of the kit. However, what’s in the box is incredible and has almost unlimited potential for a world where disease is non-existent, where some of the damage we’ve done can be rectified, and where humans might be altered in ways limited only by imagination.
Personally I’m still holding out for those wings, and an echolocation system.