For the layman, all this technobabble about mutagenesis and genetic engineering is difficult to comprehend and it took me personally a good amount of reading to start grasping what different methods exist and how these can massively improve our quality of life.
Let’s first look at the four most common ways to alter the genes of a plant or animal:
- Dr. Xavier – Mutations per se just happen regularly in nature – This is how some amino acids ended up being humans a billion years later. Biological evolution can only happen thanks to mutations. Mutations in nature happen randomly or are caused by exogenous factors such as radiation (e.g. sun). For the comic book readers among us, X-men have mutations that (in most cases) occurred randomly.
- The Hulk – Mutation through exposure (mutagens): One of the most common ways to manipulate seeds is exposing them to radiation and hoping for positive mutations (e.g. higher pest resistance). This method is very common since the 1950s and a very inaccurate shotgun approach aiming to make crops more resistant or palatable. It requires thousands of attempts to get a positive result. This method is widely used and legal in nearly every country. In our comic book universe, the Hulk is a good example of mutations caused by radiation.
- Spiderman – Genetically Modified Organisms (transgenic GMO): This often-feared procedure of creating GMOs is based on inserting the genes of one species into the genes of another. In most cases, GMO crops have been injected with a protein of another plant or bacteria that makes the crop grow faster or be more resistant towards certain diseases. Other examples can be seen in crossing salmon with tilapia fish which makes the salmon grow twice as fast. Spiderman being bitten by a spider and suddenly being able to climb skyscrapers due to his enhanced spider-human (transgenic) DNA is an example from the comicverse.
- GATTACA/Wrath of Khan – Gene Editing (the scissors): The latest and most precise way of altering an organism’s genes is so-called Gene Editing. In contrast to traditional GMOs, genes are not being implanted from another organism but changed within the organism due to a precise method of either deactivating certain genes or adding them.
This can be even done in grown humans that are alive, which is a blessing for everyone who suffers from genetic disorders. We are able to “repair” genes in live organisms. Gene editing is also thousands of times more accurate than just bombarding seeds with radiation. Some applied examples are deactivating the gene responsible for generating gluten in wheat: The result is gluten-free wheat. There are several methods that achieve this. One of the most popular ones these days is the so-called CRISPR Cas-9. These ‘scissors’ are usually reprogrammed bacteria that transmit the new gene information or deactivate defunct or unwanted genes. Many science fiction novels and movies show a future in which we can deactivate genetic defects and cure humans from terrible diseases. Some examples of stories in which CRISPR-like techniques have been used are movies such as GATTACA, Star Trek’s Wrath of Khan, or the Expanse series in which gene editing plays a crucial role in growing crops in space.
What does this have to do with the Coronavirus?
Synthetic biologists have started using CRISPR to synthetically create parts of the coronavirus in an attempt to launch a vaccine against this lung disease and be able to mass-produce it very quickly. In combination with computer simulations and artificial intelligence, the best design for such a vaccine is calculated on a computer and then synthetically created. This speeds up vaccine development and cuts it from years to merely months. Regulators and approval bodies have shown that in times of crisis they can also rapidly approve new testing and vaccination procedures which usually require years of back and forth with agencies such as the FDA?
In the long term, gene editing might allow us to increase the immunity of humans by altering our genes and making us more resistant to viruses and bacteria.
This won’t be the last crisis
While the coronavirus seems to really test our modern society, we also need to be aware that this won’t be the last pathogen that has the potential to kill millions. If we are unlucky, corona might mutate quickly and become harder to fight. The next dangerous virus, fungus, or bacteria is probably around the corner. Hence we need to embrace the latest inventions of biotechnology and not block genetic research and the deployment of its findings.
Right now a lot of red tape and even outright bans are standing between lifesaving innovations such as CRISPR and patients around the world. We need to rethink our hostility towards genetic engineering and embrace it. To be frank: We are in a constant struggle to fight newly occurring diseases and need to be able to deploy state of the art human answers to this.
Fred Roeder is a Health Economist from Germany and has worked in healthcare reform in North America, Europe, and several former Soviet Republics. One of his passions is to analyze how disruptive industries and technologies allow consumers more choice at a lower cost. Follow him on Twitter @FredCyrusRoeder