A Crack in Creation


Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg.


2017 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt New York

Since obesity is mostly a genetic problem, CRISPR could be the cure. If you haven't heard of CRISPR prepare to be amazed.
The book seems to be mostly written by Professor Doudna one of the pioneers of the nature and uses of CRISPR systems who will probably participate in a Nobel Prize for this work and who stands to make a lot of money.
CRISPR allows you to easily and accurately change genes in living organisms like plants and animals. We have been able to genetically modify things for awhile now, but CRISPR makes it ridiculously easy and cheap. You can buy kits on the internet and your kid could do a science project with CRISPR.
CRISPR was discovered in bacteria who use it as an adaptable immune system for fighting viruses that attack them. Apparently there are a lot of those viruses called bacteriophages or just phages and the war between bacteria and phages has been going on for billions of years. They say that 40% of all bacteria have their little lives cut short by phage infections. Phages have been used, and still are, in Russia, as antibacterial treatment.
CRISPR which stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats," were first discovered when it was noted that part of the DNA in many bacteria have this curious pattern of palindromic repeats interspaced with segments that were later found to be pieces of phage DNA. A palindrome is a word that is the same backward and forward like the band named ABBA. Next to these CRISPRs in bacteria are the genes for nucleases, called CRISPR associated systems (cas) which are proteins that can cut DNA. When a phage attacks, the bacteria can use the DNA pieces to match phage DNA but not their own DNA and the cas cut them up.
Like how letters can be used to represent and transcribe language and 10 digits can be used to do math and the binary code of 0 and 1 can be used by computers, the language of life is written using just 4 letters in words of 3 letters each to signify the amino acids. That writes the program for the proteins that make all of biology on earth. Those 4 letters are the nucleotides of DNA that carry the program for you and all of life. Jennifer Doudna and colleagues using the clues of CRISPR from bacteria have developed a system of editing DNA that will probably be the biggest revolution in science since.. - I don't know what would equal it.
This revolution is really only less than 2 years old (in 2017) but some of the things we are well on the way to doing include cure single gene diseases like sickle cell disease and Huntington's chorea, change mosquitoes so they can't transmit malaria or maybe just make mosquitoes go extinct altogether, make you immune to HIV AIDS, make food plants and animals bigger and better for you to eat... the list goes on and theoretically at least, we could even cure cancer and obesity. Then lots of drug companies, doctors and hospitals will go out of business and the health care crisis killing our government will get cheap and easy to fix.
This CRISPR inspired thing is not infallible and fixing lots of genes at once or in sequence might still be tricky. There are still lots of details to work out. You have to get in and fix or replace genes and then get out and stop mucking around, for example. You also have to hit the single right spot in the billions of DNA letters.
The easiest thing from a technical point of view is, rather than fix somebody with say sickle cell disease, is to fix the sperm or egg or fertilized egg stem cell before it turns into somebody with sickle cell disease. You can do that to just one cell in the convenience of your own home lab. That is, use the CRISPR system on germ line cells. Then that person's kids and kids's kids will also be fixed. Doctor Doudna spends a third of this book talking about this kind of sticky wicket - slippery slope - brave new world etc... If you are mad about GMO (genetically modified organisms) food you are really going to freak out about being in a world of GMO people. There are already laws against that and protests.
But this is not going to not happen so we need to figure it out. This CRISPR thing makes it easier and opens up the flood gates but nature has always bred plants and animals to be the fittest and humans have been breading plants and animals forever.