EDITORIAL

CRISPR Will Make Us Far More GMO

— Than we already are

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n an article published in Genome Biology last year, researchers at Cambridge University, led by Alastair Crisp and Chiara Boschetti, report finding evidence that human beings have at least 145 genes picked up from other species by their forebears.1 While that constitutes less than one percent of the 20,000 genes humans possess, it might come as a surprise that, consequently, we are part bacterium, part fungus, and part alga.

In other words, to a small degree we are all genetically modified organisms (GMO) already, and based on advanced gene editing technologies such as CRISPR (no relationship to the researcher :), we will all become more and more GMO as time goes by, like it or not.

Opponents of GMO often rage against moving genes between species as unnatural, despite the fact that all of agriculture is unnatural … because it required selective breeding. It has been known for quite some time that some genes move from one species to another given the chance, through a process called horizontal gene transfer. In fact, in the US National Library of Medicine PubMed Compilation, a search for “horizontal gene transfer” finds nearly 7,600 scientific articles!

As an example of horizontal gene transfer, genes for antibiotic resistance swap freely between species of bacteria. However, only recently has it become clear just how widespread this type of natural transgenics is. What was once regarded as an idiosyncrasy of lesser organisms has now been found to be true in human beings, too.

The Age of Genetically Modified Humans

In the rapidly advancing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 (for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats along with the name of the protein that makes it work, Cas9) segments of DNA containing short repetitions of base sequences are edited. Each repeat is followed by a short segment of “spacer DNA” from previous exposures to a bacterial virus or plasmid.

The segments of DNA used by CRISPR are found in prokaryotic cells. They have no membrane and no nucleus. In the evolution of life on Earth, prokaryotic cells were superseded by eukaryotes. But they were not replaced. The difference is that prokaryotes lack a membrane and nucleus whereas eukaryotes do not.

Over the epochs of life, bacteria have developed mechanisms to prevent infection by viruses. They have developed a way to destroy viruses with exquisitely precise attacks.

Already, geneticists have used this technology on cells to excise HIV, to correct sickle-cell anemia, and to modify cancer cells to make them more susceptible to chemotherapy. Using CRISPR, scientists could alter any human gene. This is an enormous breakthrough, the implications of which we are just beginning to imagine. Its potential uses are endless.

How Soon is CRISPR Coming?

Given a choice—along with reasonable assurances—if you had a deadly disease that could be fixed (i.e., reversed) by CRISPR, would you avail yourself of this technology? When interest in CRISPR began, only wealthy universities could afford its use. But now, only a few years later, it’s something that someone with a BS and a couple thousand dollars’ worth of equipment can do. Our belief is that CRISPR has already arrived, so be aware that even if nutritional supplements provide you will a long bridge, CRISPR may be needed to catapult you into a long and healthier future. You can’t stop science from progressing.

References

  1. Crisp A, Boschetti C, Perry M, Tunnacliffe A, Micklem G. Expression of multiple horizontally acquired genes is a hallmark of both vertebrate and invertebrate genomes. Genome Biol. 2015 Mar 13;16:50. doi:10.1186/s13059-015-0607-3. PubMed PMID: 25785303; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4358723.

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