Published on Front Line Genomics:
The ability to alter a human genome to influence eye color, height and strength was a major plot point in the 1997 science fiction film, Gattaca. The movie stars Ethan Hawke as Vincent Freeman, a young man who is considered genetically inferior because of his natural birth, and is thus met with disdain by others in his society whose genes were enhanced at birth. Determined to fulfill his dream of going to space, he purchases the genes of Jerome Morrow, (Jude Law), assumes his superior DNA identity and joins the Gattaca space program.
Creating genetically engineered humans is an idea often used in science fiction, but science of doing so actually exists. Known as CRISPR Cas9, the technology was co- created by Dr. Jennifer Doudna, which gave scientists a way to make changes to the DNA in cells that could allow them to cure genetic disease.
The technology arose from a basic research project conducted by Dr. Doudna, who was studying how bacteria fight viral infections. Many bacteria have an adaptive immune system in their cells called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), that allows them to detect viral DNA and destroy it. Part of the CRISPR system is a protein called Cas9, that seeks out, cuts, and eventually degrades viral DNA. After detecting a viral infection, Cas9 makes a cut in the DNA and creates a double stranded helix. The process can be programmed to recognize particular DNA sequences and make a break in the DNA at that site. The cell detects the double stranded break in the DNA and can fix the break, by either pasting the ends of the broken DNA together with a small change to the sequence in that position or it can repair the break by integrating a new piece of DNA at the site of the cut.
It was through their research of Cas9 that Dr. Doudna and her colleagues realized that it could be harnessed as a genetic engineering technology- a way for scientists to delete or insert specific bits of DNA into cells. The technology would allow cells to make a very precise change to the DNA at the site where the break was introduced.
Using CRISPR, scientists were able to alter a single gene in white mice, turning their coats from black to white. Dr. Doudna predicts that clinical applications of CRISPR within adults could occur in the next ten years, and would entail clinical trials and approved therapies within that time. Several start-up companies have founded to commercialize CRISPR, and venture capitalists have invested in those companies.
During a TED talk, Dr. Doudna stated that scientists needed to consider that CRISPR could be used for enhancement, and asked the audience to imagine scientists engineering humans who have enhanced properties, such as stronger bones and less susceptibility to cardiovascular disease. The technology could even influence desirable properties, like a different eye color or height.
CRISPR Cas 9 is both an exciting and frightening technology, and raises several ethical questions which Dr, Doudna has called a summit of scientists to discuss. At what point does natural life become a scientific plaything for humans to change at their leisure? How long until humans begin loosing the traits that make them unique, and give way to a race of genetically superior beings?
These seem like questions raised in a science fiction movie or book, but as science advances, those questions slowly start to become a reality.