Cluster regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – CRISPR. It’s a mouthful, and a new scientific technique. In English, it’s like a new kind of scissor one that allows scientists to precisely correct mutations in a genome – like a cut and paste tool for DNA. Now, two big labs – one from Harvard and MIT and another from Berkeley – are fighting over the patent for the technology. But in the meantime, it’s already being used by the do-it-yourself community. And as Åsa Secher reports, that raises concerns about putting powerful scientific tools in the hands of lay people.
SECHER: Imagine if you could eradicate disease and create a race of healthier humans – all by editing genes. That’s still far in the scientific future – but next month at Genspace, a nonprofit science lab in Brooklyn, students will begin learning how to modify the genome of yeast.
JORGENSEN: As we go through the workshop you’ll see that there are many different uses for CRISPR…
SECHER: Ellen Jorgensen is Genspace’s director. This month, she’s teaching the lab’s first CRISPR workshops.
JORGENSEN:…some of them are quite profound and kind of jack up our potential as humans to affect the world around us.
SECHER: That sounds great, right? Science enthusiasts trying out new groundbreaking techniques. But – not everyone’s thrilled.
CAPLAN:…it’s great to have people saying hey, I don’t need a big lab and a big grant and 52 mentors, I can study something and try something on my own. (0:09)
SECHER: Arthur Caplan teaches bioethics at NYU. He says giving amateurs access to CRISPR could have downsides – the material scientists want to experiment with, like bacteria, is microscopic.
CAPLAN: It may seem innocuous to say well we’re just gonna experiment with bacteria, look, there are bacteria that make up about probably 60 percent of what’s in our gut, if you got one in there that didn’t belong there and it started doing bad things, it could have some pretty lethal consequences.
SECHER: Scientists are not yet sure how accurate and well-targeted CRISPR is. Caplan says the technique isn’t yet ready for D-I-Y use.
CAPLAN:I’d like to see a little more of that established before the amateurs go to town. (0:09)
SECHER: Caplan says, the big concern is CRISPR’s incredible potential. If any genome can be edited – that means genes in human embryos can be too. And that’s when the slope starts slipping towards eugenics – scientists trying to create superhumans. Choosing traits like height or eye color.
But, Jorgensen says that’s not what Genspace’s classes are about.
JORGENSEN: We have no desire to edit humans, and no capability of doing it. And we’re not gonna get involved in editing the germlines of species.
SECHER: But Caplan argues the DIY community’s abilities to perform advanced experiments – could change quickly. He says there needs to be government regulation of amateurs.
CAPLAN: There’s no oversight or control of do-it-yourselfers. That may be very difficult to make that happen. But in this point in a new technology, I think you want to have some eyeballs on what people propose to do.
SECHER: Josiah Zayner is a genetic engineer and a biohacker – he wants more do-it-yourselfers to experiment with science. He thinks that could lead to innovations – like new ideas for food resources, renewable fuels and cheaper medicine.
ZAYNER: I think it would be irresponsible of the human race, to not allow people to have access to these technologies.
SECHER: He’s even started a crowdfunding campaign…
SOUND from INDIEGOGO video
“I spent the past several months developing protocols and kits so people can perform safe experiments with modern technologies like CRISPR in their home”
SECHER: So far, the campaign has raised more than 500 percent of its goal and the first do-it-yourself CRISPR kits will reach amateur scientists’ hands next month. The kits include petri dishes, DNA, yeast and more.
ZAYNER: The whole point of this indiegogo campaign is to make science accessible. To break down the classes.
SECHER: Zayner says the benefits of genetic engineering far outweigh the negatives. But Arthur Caplan, the NYU bioethics professor, says editing any genome – from yeast to human – risks experiments that could have unknown consequences.
The labs at MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley, the ones fighting over who owns the patent, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But while their court battle continues – spots are filling up fast at upcoming CRISPR workshops at Genspace.
Åsa Secher, Columbia Radio News.