By Ritu Atreyas

Automation. Capital punishment. Standardized testing. Minimum wage. Universal basic income. Genetic engineering.

Students taking Honors American Literature were given a wide variety of topics to choose from for Factoid Friday, a semester-long project that requires them to present an argument regarding a controversial topic. Despite the overwhelming number of options, several students showed interest in genetic engineering. Junior Sophia Chen in Honors American Literature was one of them. 

“CRISPR is super interesting,” Chen said. “Although I don’t know a whole lot about it, I hope to learn more and the [Factoid Friday] project gives me the opportunity to do so.” 

Junior Sneha Maiti, another student in Honors American Literature, had a similar response. 

“Genetic modification has a lot to do with biology and I’m currently taking AP Biology,” Maiti said. “For Factoid Friday, I’m focusing on controversies surrounding technologies like CRISPR. For example, the idea of a “perfect” human is definitely controversial. Possibly, in the future, I would like to change that idea and make sure that although genetic modification can change skin color, height, there is a limit to what CRISPR is used for.”

So what is CRISPR? CRISPR is a tool used by researchers for editing genomes, allowing them to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. By changing DNA sequences by disabling, repairing, inserting, or removing genes, it is possible to trick the cell’s natural DNA repair mechanisms into introducing changes. Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein 9), in particular, is used with CRISPR because its main function is to cut DNA, allowing it to alter a cell’s genome. 

CRISPR, although controversial, has the potential to further the development of future biotechnology products, improve crop yield, eradicate genetically inherited conditions and possibly even help harness the immune system to fight cancer. 

Recently, researchers revealed data from the first study involving U.S. cancer patients who received cells genetically modified with CRISPR. The patients received infusions of their own immune system cells that were removed and genetically modified in a lab. American biochemist Jennifer Doudna who contributed to the discovery and development of CRISPR highly anticipated the results of the study.

“I’m just so excited,” Doudna said. “It’s an important step on the path toward using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing in patients.”

However, researcher Michel Sadelain stresses that scientists still have a lot to do before being able to confidently declare the approach safe.

The Controversy

Last year, researcher Jiankui He announced the birth of the first humans born with heritable changes to their genomes. Although he said the changes were to lower the babies’ risk of contracting HIV, his actions sparked controversy. 

He was able to confer resistance to HIV by editing mutations into the CCR5 gene, a gene that plays an important role in how the immune system behaves. However, after postdoctoral researcher Xinzhu Wei went through nearly 410,000 genomes in a volunteer DNA archive, Wei found that when people naturally have a trait similar to the one He engineered into the babies’ DNA, they are at a higher risk of dying before age 76 than those who don’t have the trait. 

Like the study suggests, controversies surrounding CRISPR stem from unpredictable consequences as mutations that are beneficial in one context may prove detrimental in another context and the lack of 100% accuracy with CRISPR opens up the possibility of other genes being accidentally altered. 

Professor Lori P. Knowles claims that the study does not draw a definitive conclusion as “[s]ingle gene to disease relationships are rare, and we have to remember that many of the diseases are a result of gene/environment interaction.”

It is important to draw a distinction between using CRISPR to prevent disease and using it to choose traits. The Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center contacted over 6000 people through surveys and found that “[i]n general, Americans approve of using [CRISPR] to prevent fatal childhood disease, but do not approve of using the same to identify or select for traits like intelligence or strength.”

Introducing Students to CRISPR

MVHS teacher Pamela Chow incorporates CRISPR and biotechnology into her biology classes by showing her students an informational video. She believes that these newer technologies are important for her students to know about.

“I think realistically, it is one of those things where we, specifically for AP Biology, have to make choices. We can’t spend a lot of time on any one topic,” Chow said. “When I was studying biology, [these technologies] didn’t exist. It is very new and as we learn about it, we put it in. So yes, we talk about CRISPR as we want them to know about it.” 

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