Two news items clicked together in the brain this week: one on the surface at least quite frivolous, and the other of such profound significance it has the potential to throw a bomb into life-as-we-know-it and blast us into utterly uncharted terrain.
Let’s start with the harebrained one. Do you remember when designer dogs first became the must-have accessory? Or maybe they always were. But a few years ago, someone came up with the bright idea of taking established breeds and cross-breeding them with each other in the search for the cutest combo-pup. Nowadays, puggles, goldendoodles, labskys and cockerpoos are everywhere. There was, and still is, good money to be made and breeders are cashing in.
Of course, this is nothing new. Humans have been interfering with natural selection for centuries, cross-breeding both animals and plants in the worlds of farming and horticulture, in search of desired ‘improvements’: more productive milk cows; heavier meatier livestock; disease-resistant crops; or just prettier flowers.
But cross-breeding as a way of getting what you want, is so yesterday. Make way for CRISPR.
CRISPR is not a typo, as one might be excused for thinking, describing how omnivores like their breakfast bacon. It is, apparently, the acronym for
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats
Gene-editing to you and me. In the simplest of terms that I can understand, it means cutting out a section of the DNA double helix (see below) with something called Cas9 – biological scissors, in effect – and replacing the removed section with a new piece of DNA- which can be just about anything the scientists want it to be.
What has made this biotechnology possible are the huge strides in genome mapping over the last couple of decades. Because of course, you don’t want to just cut out any old piece of DNA. Now, because each bit of the double helix can be identified, you can target the exact piece you want to remove, and replace it with the piece of your choice.
So your new designer dog can now be gene-edited any way you want. No more need for crossbreeding, lots more scope for innovation, and better control over results. Genetic-engineer James West has spotted the money-making potential. His Nashville-based firm AgGenetics engineered Angus cattle to have white coats instead of black or brown, to make them more heat-tolerant, thus doubling beef production. (And milk cows are already being gene-edited to be born without horns, so they no longer have to be burned off.)
Inevitably, it didn’t take Mr West long to realise that the change-the-coat-colour technique could be applied to other animals too. He tested his idea on mice, and produced poor little newborns sporting their little fur coats patterned with squares, stripes and spots. Maybe soon he will be taking orders for the customer’s choice of novelty designer dog picked from an online catalogue. There are so far four colourways: red, brown, yellow and black. And would you prefer squares or stripes, Sir/Madam?
Ludicrous as it sounds, gene-editing for striped dogs provokes serious questions. Who knows where it could lead, and what the implications could be – and not just for dogs?
And the designer stripey dog is one thing, but how about wiping out an entire species at will?
We ran across this even more worrying application for CRISPR earlier this year, in Should We Wipe Mosquitoes off the Face of the Earth? With CRISPR it’s possible, for instance, to delete the mosquito DNA involved in reproduction and replace that section of the sequence with DNA that makes the insect sterile. This ‘permanent solution’ for mosquitoes is being researched for obvious reasons – these insects carry malaria, zika and dengue fever, and by transmitting malaria in particular, have probably killed more than half the humans that have ever lived.
This seems to be the default human mindset: how can we use this new technology for the benefit of our own species before and above all others?
With CRISPR, humanity now holds in its hands the power of god, the power to gene-edit Nature. I’ll say it again,
MAN NOW HAS THE POWER TO GENE-EDIT LIFE ITSELF
And that is a terrifying prospect for us all.
In 2011 a group of geologists called for the recognition of a new era in the history of the Earth – the Anthropocene, to acknowledge the impact of humans on the planet. How much more apt now than it was just five short years ago.
So when we ask that question, how can these new technologies be used to further our own interests, there are other, and even more important questions that need to be addressed: Should we be doing this? What are the ethics controlling our ever-increasing powers? And who gets to decide?
This is what natural scientist and poet Melanie Challenger has to say about the new power we have, to deliberately wipe out a target species if we so choose (as opposed to accidentally wiping out random species which tragically, we’re proving spectacularly successful at)
If we start getting cavalier about the existence of a living being, if we start to think it’s OK to eradicate something because it’s a threat to us, we put other ideas about the sanctity of life in question
Striped dogs, a world without mosquitoes, can it get any more bizarre and perturbing? Well yes it can – the Chimaera, already here. In Greek myth the Chimaera was a monstrous fire-breeding hybrid, a goat-headed lion with a serpent-head tail. These days, we’re more familiar with the electro-petroleum kind of hybrid on four wheels. But the very latest kind of Chimaera hybrid has more in common with the one of Greek myth – it’s a nightmarish combination of human and pig.
So what would you say to Organ Farms?
A while ago I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel ‘Never Let Me Go’. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t yet read it) As you turn the pages you start to realise the horrible truth, that the young people we are getting to know as they grow up, are in fact clones. Then an even more disturbing truth is revealed – the characters have been created solely for their organs and will undergo a cycle of ‘donations’ until their bodies and their lives are consumed.
Well, reality is catching up with fiction once again. Only, as is always the case in the real world, it’s the infinitely useful nonhuman animal that humans deploy for the task. The unfortunate ‘donors’ will not be human but porcine. Pigs have drawn the short straw because their organs are about the size and weight of human organs. Not that they will be using the animals’ own organs though, because pig organs would be rejected by the human body. So what’s needed for the sick people on the long waiting list for transplants are proper healthy human organs.
No cloning here though – just CRISPR and the new Chimaera. This is what you do. You get a brand new pig embryo in your lab. You delete the genes responsible for the formation of, say, the pancreas. You introduce the appropriate human genes. You implant the genetically-engineered embryo into a female pig on your Organ Farm, and hey presto, there will be a lovely human pancreas ready to transplant into a human recipient in need. Farms of pigs incubating clean healthy human organs, and on demand.
Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, but that is where the research is heading. And it will happen. As the title of last night’s Panorama proclaimed, “Medicine’s Big Breakthrough”. The scientists are excited by CRISPR’s potential. So are the medical professionals. And who can blame those once considered incurably ill for holding on to such promise of a complete cure.
But what about the animals? And what about the planet? The waves in the wake of this technology could sink us before climate change gets a chance to.
Just a final note to send you to bed with nightmares: there’s a guy in San Francisco selling Do-It-Yourself CRISPR kits online out of his garage, so everyone can do their own gene-editing at home. He calls it the democratisation of science. Sweet dreams.
Postscript This is a huge topic with more ramifications than it is possible to imagine. I don’t pretend to any expertise and my descriptions of the science are just my way of getting my head around it a little bit. This is just skimming the surface of a technology of infinite significance that is surely ushering in the next Age of Life on Earth.