Every now and then, nature politely taps us on the shoulder and hands over a world-changing gift. A mold spore wafts through the open window of a laboratory, and lo, we have penicillin. A military radar array melts a chocolate bar in an engineer’s pocket, and voilà, it’s humanity’s first microwave oven.
The discovery of the gene-editing technology known as Crispr was just such a fluke. Seven years ago, scientists realized they could harness the immune systems of certain microbes and use them to cut and paste DNA. The results have been revolutionary. Crispr is fast, cheap, and shockingly simple to operate. It is gradually giving us the power to alter not only our own genetic destiny, but also that of the entire planet—to eradicate illness, develop new crops and livestock, even resurrect extinct species. If we are to use this power responsibly, writes Jennifer Kahn in the April issue of WIRED, “we’ll need a firm grasp of the facts and an accurate understanding of Crispr’s many benefits and risks. We’ll also need to confront a difficult question: How far do we, as individuals and as a society, want this technology to go?”
A handful of WIRED reporters set out to find the answer. Gregory Barber visited the Beef Barn at UC Davis, where researcher Alison Van Eenennaam is experimenting with gene-edited cattle. (One of them, a winsome heifer named Princess, appears on the April cover.) Van Eenennaam’s ultimate goal is a kinder, less wasteful farming industry. She is raising a small herd of animals that are programmed not to grow horns, which she hopes will spare future calves the trauma of having their horns burned off with a hot iron or caustic chemicals. The work itself can be difficult; as she tells Barber, “science is a bitch.” By far her biggest frustration, though, is the slow pace of government regulation. Before hornless cattle—or flu-proof chickens, or disease-resistant pigs—can reach the market, policymakers have to come to some consensus about Crispr. For now, Van Eenennaam’s hornless herd is in limbo: “They’re either all going to be incinerated or they’re all going to become steaks.”
Erika Hayasaki stopped by the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, where Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues are using Crispr to create human-animal hybrids, also known as chimeras. Their aim is to address the critical shortage of transplant organs—thousands of hearts, kidneys, lungs, and so on every year—by growing them inside pigs. Along the way, they’ll traverse some of the muckiest ethical ground in all of biology. “What if scientists inadvertently created a pig able to intellectualize its own suffering, one with a sense of moral injustice?” Hayasaki asks. “Even if you could accept killing a farm animal to harvest its organs—which many animal welfare activists don’t—surely it would be monstrous to kill one with humanlike intelligence.”
And to answer the question of how all this genetic slicing and dicing actually works, I took a quick look at the latest tools of the Crispr trade.
Anthony Lydgate | Senior Editor, WIRED