The genetic technology that's going to change everything is at a critical turning point

Before 2012, researchers interested in studying how bacteria worked knew that microbes defended themselves against certain viruses using something they called a CRISPR/Cas system. There are a number of studies published in the early 2000s — starting in 2002 — discussing the presence of these systems and investigating how they work.

There weren’t many people studying that system then, especially compared to now, and those working in that area were doing what’s called basic, or fundamental science, investigating something for the sake of curiosity or interest — not because they knew that research would have a practical or profitable result.

They didn’t know they were studying something that could be used to change the world, something that would give scientists the ability to rewrite DNA — the building blocks of life.

Now, scientists everywhere are racing to improve on and perfect the use of CRISPR as a tool, with practical and profitable results very much in mind. Many of these scientists have become fascinated with CRISPR’s potential power to — as Wired puts it — “remake the world.”

While some genetic engineering and editing technology existed in the past, providing a hint of the idea that it might someday be possible to edit genes, those older technologies were never accurate or consistent enough to move rewriting DNA from science fiction to real science. That’s changed.

“It’s a technology that gives scientists a capability that has not been in our hands in the past,” Jennifer Doudna, one of the scientists frequently credited with first realising and showing that the CRISPR system could be used as a tool, tells Tech Insider.

“We’re basically now able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes,” the University of California at Berkeley biologist says. “All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers.”

Why hundreds of scientists have jumped on board

In 2012, when Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier published that first paper showing that CRISPR could be used to modify DNA, interest in that area of research was growing rapidly. According to an analysis of research by MIT Tech Review, there had been five papers published on the CRISPR system in 2005. By 2012 (the year Doudna and Carpentier published), there were 127 studies that discussed the tool. That analysis predicted that this year, there would be more than 1,100 scientific publications on the topic.

There’s so much interest because there are so many potential uses for genetic editing.

“It’s a really powerful tool,” says Dustin Rubinstein, the head of a lab working with CRISPR and other genetic engineering tools at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. Rubinstein’s lab is necessary because at an institution with research going on in all kinds of different disciplines, almost everyone — “from engineering to direct translational medicine” — sees an application for it.

The potential medical uses of CRISPR are fairly clear. It could cure genetic diseases and perhaps even remove vulnerability to other illnesses like HIV; it could make cancers unable to attack the cells they would normally affect. But bioengineers also see CRISPR as a way to potentially make algae produce sustainable energy.

Geneticist George Church told Tech Insider in an email that CRISPR is helping his team put mammoth DNA into elephant cells, with the end goal of creating some sort of mammoth-like elephant, bringing back a version of an extinct species. In Wired’s feature, Church cut himself off immediately after starting to mention some of the potential weapons that could be created using genetic editing.

The hard part is moving from the potential that everyone sees to real, practical applications.

What’s next

As Rubinstein sees it, we’re getting closer and closer to that point. For any discovery, he says, you first have the original pioneers, the ones with the “eureka” moments — people like Doudna and Charpentier and Church and the Broad Institute’s Feng Zhang, who published the first paper showing genetic editing in cells, as opposed to in strands of DNA.

In the next stage of discovery, you have other scientists, who show that discovery working in various model systems, in experiments involving flies and mice and other things. These are “still kind of pioneers,” he says.

Now, Rubinstein says, “we’re finally at that stage where that last group, the people who want to know that it works before they start using it, is finally ready to run with it.”

As a major piece of evidence in that direction, on August 10, Editas Medicine, one of the first companies using CRISPR-Cas9 to develop new ways to cure human disease, announced that they’d raised $US120 million from a group of investors that includes Bill Gates.

That’s a sign that this technology might soon be ready to move from the research stage to the stage where we see applications that might affect human health, and much more.

“It’s really going to just empower us to have more creativity … to get into the sandbox and have more control over what you build,” says Rubinstein. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”

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