Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats / Cas9, better known as just CRISPR, is a form of genetic modification that utilizes the immune system of bacteria to selectively remove or replace individual genes. As you can imagine, it is a very complex concept — I recommend this great full explainer –– but it has vast implications for the future of human health and prosperity, as Vox.com points out:
What’s impressive about CRISPR is how it’s transforming the work of so many scientists in so many different fields. Much of the important work is still in the proof-of-concept stage — for example, proving that you can use CRISPR to control transcription (making an RNA copy of a gene sequence), edit the epigenome, or image the genome in living cells. But as the details get worked out, scientists say they can imagine CRISPR becoming an incredibly powerful tool.
“We are getting to a point where we can investigate different combinations of genes, controlling when, where, and how much they are expressed, and investigate the roles of individual bases of DNA,” says Nicola Patron, a molecular and synthetic biologist at the Earlham Institute in the UK. “Understanding what DNA sequences do is what enables us to solve problems in every field of biology from curing human diseases, to growing enough healthy food, to discovering and making new medicines, to understanding why some species are going extinct.”
Note that Patron didn’t mention editing genes in human embryos — that is, designing babies with coveted traits like high intelligence or muscular stature. Indeed, most scientists obsessed with CRISPR say this potential use of the technology is much more scientifically challenging and less important than other applications. With 3 billion base pairs, the human genome is so massive that complex modifications will be a major hurdle even with CRISPR. Plus embryo editing is ethically very fraught — it will likely be many years before any scientist in the US gets the green light to try it (though China and other countries will move faster on this front).
The article goes on to list seven amazing implications of CRISPR, including curing cancer and HIV; improving the yield and resilience of crops; and even finding a viable substitute to fossil fuels. Needless to say, it is worth reading if you want something to be excited about this year (and many more years to come hopefully).