The biggest scientific breakthrough of the year will reshape life as we know it
This wasn’t the year the most powerful gene editing technology we’ve ever known — CRISPR — was discovered, but it was the year the world started to see just how much this tool would transform life as we know it.
For that reason, the journal Science named CRISPR its “2015 Breakthrough of the Year.”
As John Travis of Science explains, CRISPR has appeared as a runner up for the top breakthrough before, in combination with other tools that scientists use to manipulate and edit the building blocks of life.
“[T]his is the year it broke away from the pack, revealing its true power in a series of spectacular achievements,” Travis writes.
As Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley biologist who was one of the pioneers of using CRISPR, explained to us earlier this year, the tool basically allows us to find specific sections of our genetic code and either cut them out or even more dramatically, replace them.
“We’re basically now able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes,” she said.
There are hundreds of potential uses for this, ranging from creating genetically edited animals — cows that don’t grow horns or super-muscled dogs — to creating algae that can function as a sustainable energy source to perhaps even changing our own DNA to become disease resistant or super strong.
But there were two things done with CRISPR this year that gave it that breakthrough of the year status: the editing of (nonviable) human embryos and the creation of a “gene drive.”
When researchers at Sun Yat-sen University announced they had made changes to the DNA of human embryos it caused waves around the world. Even though they were doing something that researchers knew was possible with gene editing tools and even though there were a lot of errors, they’d still actually changed the genes of humans in ways that would have been passed on if those embryos were implanted and brought to term.
That would be the equivalent of making designer babies; it would be taking an active hand in human evolution.
To demonstrate the ability of CRISPR to create what’s known as a “gene drive,” researchers at the University of California engineered a gene that would forcibly spread throughout a population. In a study published in Science, they showed that within two generations, their mutation had found its way into 97% of a population of fruit flies.
The ability to force a gene to spread through a population could be a way to eliminate mosquitoes that spread malaria, for example. But releasing something into the wild that has the ability to wipe out a population also frightens researchers, as it might lead to unexpected side effects that can’t be taken back.
Both of these developments show the control that CRISPR gives us over life’s building blocks. And as Travis explains, there’s so much more this tool is helping scientists do. By using it to turn genes on and off, researchers are figuring out how those genes interact and what effects they have. It’s a tool that’s helping unlock the secrets of cancer. Other scientists are creating pigs that grow organs that can be transplanted into humans.
As Dustin Rubinstein, the head of a lab working with CRISPR and other genetic engineering tools at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told us earlier this year, “it’s really going to just empower us to have more creativity … to get into the sandbox and have more control over what you build.”
“You’re only limited by your imagination.”