Building Tomorrow explores the ways technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are creating a freer, wealthier, and more peaceful world.

Nov 19, 2018

Biohacking with CRISPR

CRISPR technology promises to eradicate diseases and feed the starving, but should we be worried about possible ill consequences?

Biohacking and CRISPR

Science is vision. It allows us to predict the consequences of our actions. Technology is power. It gives us new possible actions to take. - Kevin Esvelt

According to the World Health Organization, almost half of the global population is at risk of being infected with malaria. In sub-Saharan Africa, ten percent of children are killed by the disease every year and worldwide more than 500 million people are plagued by the virus annually. With all the advancements made in science and technology, malaria is still one of the most dangerous and difficult diseases to combat and eradicate from the face of our planet.

Malaria is transmitted by a specific species of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes known universally as ‘malaria mosquitoes’. Although males do not carry the virus, enough of the female Anopheles variety exist to pose serious threats to the human population. Though these mosquitoes are ubiquitous across all global climates, they are most prevalent in warmer regions of the world including parts of Africa, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, the Carribean, and the Middle East. With over 500,000 deaths attributed to malaria every year, developing genetic tools and new technologies that can tackle the disease is a top priority for scientists and gene hackers alike.

CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered Regulatory Interlaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a gene-editing tool that gives researchers and scientists a sort of molecular scissors that can cut and replace one gene with another. By the early aughts of the 21st century, this revolutionary gene editing tool had been used to restructure the genetic code of living organisms. While genetically modified organisms (GMO) are created by introducing foreign DNA structures to an organism, CRISPR-Cas9 works by manipulating the genetic code of an organism itself. Dr. Emmanuelle Charpintier of the Max Planck Institute describes CRISPR-Cas9 in this way: “It’s like a kind of film strip. The person responsible can edit the fate and the story of a life of a cell, an organism, with this technology.”

In 2018, at London’s Imperial College, biologists Andrea Crisanti and Austin Burt succeeded in using CRISPR-Cas9 to wipe out a caged population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. After only a few generations of breeding, none of the original mosquito offspring carried malaria. Utilizing CRISPR-Cas9, researchers had rewired evolution for one of the world’s deadliest diseases. With the technical problem of how to eradicate malaria-infected mosquitoes solved, researchers have now begun to question how they can make this a fixed trait among mosquito populations worldwide.

A gene drive is a technology that can increase the heredity of a modified gene in an organism. It is so precise in its execution that some are worried about the implications of making such generation-defining alterations to species. Harvard biologist Kevin Esvelt has been one of the leading researchers on the topic and he has warned about the potential of wild, uncontrolled gene drives that could quickly and irrevocably change a species forever. Furthermore, while gene drives can precisely edit problems with existing populations and perhaps rebirth extinct species, they might also be used to eliminate an entire organism with unforeseen consequences for entire ecosystems.

Many scientists, however, believe that gene drives will not create the sort of apocalyptic scenarios that have been speculated. They point out that gene drives only work in sexually reproducing species meaning that they can’t be used to engineer viruses or bacteria. Yes, it is true that CRISPR-Cas9 and similar technologies pose ethical, scientific and philosophical questions about the very nature of evolution as we know it. While we await the large-scale effects of these new technologies, developments in agriculture and biohacking are quickly changing the way human and plant biology functions.

Playing God

“CRISPR allows humans — it puts so much power into our hands. The idea that we could be playing the role of God makes a lot of people nervous” - Dr. Lai Liangxue

At the core of the biohacking movement sits an exotic and eccentric class of scientists, academics, artists, cryptographers, and philosophers with the same goal in mind: to better the world we live in by exacting revenge on the slow and methodical process of evolution. The field has a definitive counterculture feel that sits in opposition to the more traditional structures of well-funded laboratory research.

When Josiah Zayner injected his forearm with CRISPR-Cas9 in hopes of attaining bigger muscles at the biotech conference SynBioBeta in 2017, the scientific world was both excited and skeptical. Was Zayner a cutting-edge pioneer moving the biohacking movement forward or a dangerous cult-like figure signaling a new forefront of amateur experimentation in biological research? The jury is still out.

Today, Zayner says that he regrets injecting himself at the conference in 2017. By using his own body as a testing lab, Zayner believes he has encouraged a new group of bedroom biohackers to experiment on themselves with little oversight. That hasn’t kept Zayner’s company “The-Odin” from selling DIY hacking equipment aimed at that very demographic. Speaking with CBS News in 2017, Zayner was blunt: “”I think we are in the midst of a genetic revolution. I think this is, literally, a new era of human beings. It’s going to create a whole new species of humans.”

The major impetus behind DIY stay-at-home biohackers like Josiah Zayner are the tough restrictions and regulations placed on scientists hoping to experiment with new gene editing technologies. In China, Dr. Lai Liangxue of the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine has biohacked dogs, mice, and hundreds of mutant pigs specifically because their genomes are similar to that of humans. Dr. Lai has lauded the technology as cheap, effective and fast compared to the years and millions of dollars needed to perform similar experiments within government regulations.

But can unregulated biohacking go too far? In early 2018, former Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO Aaron Traywick dropped his pants and injected himself with a DIY herpes treatment at Body Hacking Con in Austin. The audience seemed split. One person asked if he had the “ethical permission” for the experiment. Others cheered wildly for Traywick’s willingness to experiment on his own body. By Summer, Traywick would be dead, but not from biohacking. He was discovered lifeless inside a flotation tank in Washington D.C.

The market for implants and bionic limbs has exploded in recent years to serve not only physically disabled persons but also artists, scientists and a growing group of futurists that are experimenting with the intersection of biology and technology. Today, humans are implanting RFID (radio frequency identification) chips into their forearms that can unlock car doors, turn coffee machines on with a wave of their palm, or grant access to computer networks. These small-scale solutions are only the beginning stages of what could become a common medical practice.

Analysts at the research company Gartner Inc. estimate that the human augmentation market could grow to $2.5 billion by the year 2025. As humans continue to interact with and develop new technologies to advance human, physical and mental abilities we will also need to develop security measures that prevent data manipulation and network hacking of these advancements.

Engineering Food

“You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.”  - Vandana Shiva

The life of a plant is constantly under stress. Whether from drought, disease, pests or the increasing effects of climate change, ecosystems throughout the world suffer from a variety of issues that can cause food shortages, concentrate economic blight and cause a greater consolidation of corporate agriculture. But what if we could engineer plants to fight against degenerative diseases while producing higher yields for farmers and consumers alike?

Modern day researchers in the fields of botany are attempting to do just that. As the worldwide population nears 8 billion, the need to produce crops that are robust and nourishing has never been more pressing. Gene editing in agriculture is not the first scientific foray into the world of modifying plant structure in an effort to feed expanding populations. Corn, bananas, tomatoes and more have all benefited from genetic modification implemented by humans to better strengthen a crop’s health.

Plant geneticist Pamela Ronald has dedicated much of her career to understanding rice yields. Every year, 40% of the rice harvest throughout the world is lost due to pest and disease. Even more pressing for millions of farmers is the constant threat of flooding. When rice is submerged in water for more than three day, the crop dies. Ronald and her colleagues have used gene editing and precision breeding to rebirth an ancient species of rice that can weather up to two weeks of full submersion.

In the farming and scientific communities, there is a natural reluctance for utilizing gene-editing technologies to effect a plant’s biological makeup. Some argue that gene editing is merely a new approach to GMO’s while others believe creating and manipulating genetic structures in a lab takes the romance out of a farmer’s relationship to the crops they grow. At Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Long Island, scientists see it differently. There, scientists are working to create gene edited tomatoes that can be cultivated in northern latitudes where the growing seasons is short.

Plant biologist Zachary Lippman has been working to mutate the genetic structure of tomatoes and the results have been exciting. By producing tomatoes that are resistant to common diseases, Lippman is hopeful that CRISPR-Cas9 tomatoes will be on the shelves of major retailers by as soon as next year. “As there is more understanding of what gene editing is doing, it’s very clear that it has a huge upside. When we look at this technology, we have to look at the hope that it brings for us to be able to breed crops that now might be tolerable to extreme weather conditions or that might produce more yield in a static environment.”

For opponents of corporate agriculture monoliths like Monsanto, CRISPR-Cas9 poses serious concerns as to who will control the modern science of farming. In the past, Monsanto has sued small farmers in an effort to protect their seed patents and CRISPR-Cas9 tools could very well become the new intellectual and legal battleground that giant corporate agribusinesses use to control many of the planet’s crops. Though the dangers of patented control over gene editing technologies are not unfounded, the opportunity to feed and nurture the world’s growing population is what sits at the forefront of scientists attempts at rewiring the evolutionary process in plants.

Human’s natural instinct has always been to carve and manicure the world around them. Over two million years ago, transitional humans in East Africa developed stone tools that could process various animal and plant materials. Today, Gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 present new opportunities to sculpt and rewire the natural coding of all organisms and will hopefully, in time, help create a more bountiful and healthy world to live in.