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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Revolutions in genetics - again, part one

In 1975, an important conference, called by a scientist, and attended by scientists in a particular research field, and some key non-scientists who were invited, was held at the Asilomar conference center, near the Pacific ocean, in California. The purpose was to consider the safety of work with microorganisms -- could some dangerous genetically engineered superbug escape, and put humanity at risk? The conference resulted in guidelines for research on genetically modified organisms. It was suggested, for example, that laboratories doing certain kinds of work, such as with human cancer-related genes, would take stringent precautions against the accidental release of microorganisms carrying such genes. The most widely used experimental bacterium was, and is, Escherichia coli, which grows naturally in the human intestines. Presumably, an E. coli strain carrying dangerous genes, developed for experimental purposes, and grown in glassware, could become established in humans, if it came in contact with them.

The Asilomar Conference was a landmark in science. It established guidelines, developed by scientists, that, although not having the force of governmental edicts, were generally adhered to. (The guidelines were adhered to by non-US scientists.) It was one of the few times that scientists, as a group, and in conjunction with non-scientists, looked ahead, and tried to envision what might go wrong because of technological break-throughs. Apparently, for example, no one thought much about the tremendous changes in society that would come about as a result of the development of automobiles -- such as auto accidents, the dedication of large portions of real estate to roads and parking, the use of autos as a rendezvous for sexual activity, and the politics of oil distribution. I'm not aware that anyone seriously thought about the effect of cell phones, either.

At about the turn of the century, there were suggestions that something like the Asilomar conference should be held again, in an attempt to prohibit the use of genetic engineering techniques for warfare. Self-replicating weapons are potentially as, or more, dangerous than fission or fusion bombs.

Some have suggested that, within the last three or four years, there has been a sudden leap forward in our ability to move genes from one organism to another. The technique involves what are called CRISPRs. Quoting the Wikipedia article on these:
Since 2013, the CRISPR/Cas system has been used for gene editing (adding, disrupting or changing the sequence of specific genes) and gene regulation in species throughout the tree of life. ... By delivering the Cas9 protein and appropriate guide RNAs into a cell, the organism's genome can be cut at any desired location...

It may be possible to use CRISPR to build RNA-guided gene drives capable of altering the genomes of entire populations.

The scientists most involved in developing these techniques have indicated that they don't think it should be used on humans yet, but a group of Chinese scientists tried them on "non-viable embryos."

There are considerable ethical questions about the possible application of these new techniques, not least the possibility of using human embryos, however derived, as experimental organisms.

The Wikipedia article, referenced above, on the techniques, is a good place to start reading about CRISPRs, although it's not for the faint of heart. There is a recent article in Wired, which introduces the possibilities, and also discusses questions about patenting these techniques (which brings up other ethical questions) and profiles the most important scientists in the field, most of whom are female.

The use of CRISPRs seems to be a truly revolutionary change in how we manipulate DNA, other organisms, and in how we may manipulate ourselves.

Thanks for reading. I have written previous essays on what the Bible says relating to technology, and on what the Bible says about environmental stewardship.

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