Since its introduction four decades ago, genetic engineering has been a source of high hopes for health, agriculture, and industry. But it has also provoked deep anxiety, not least owing to the laborious nature of the genome-editing process. Now, a new technique, CRISPR-Cas, offers both precision and the ability to modify the genome text at several places simultaneously. But this has not eliminated reason for concern.
[A] cell that reproduces a virus, whether useless or harmful, [has] to develop some way to resist it. And, in fact, it was in this manner – as a bacteria’s defense against invading viruses – that the CRISPR-Cas process first emerged.
[S]cientists have figured out how to replicate the process [of viral infection], enabling humans to edit, with the utmost precision, specific genomes – the Holy Grail of genetic engineering for nearly 50 years.
This means that scientists can apply the CRISPR-Cas mechanism to correct problems in the genome – the equivalent of typos in a written text. For example, in the case of cancer, we would want to destroy those genes that allow the multiplication of tumor cells. We are also interested in introducing genes in cells that never gained them by natural genetic transfer.
There is nothing new about these objectives. But, with CRISPR-Cas, we are far better equipped to achieve them.
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