What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is just the latest gene editing technology. It’s not necessarily CRISPR that we think is the big deal, but the way it has captured the attention of biologists and the imaginations of normal folks everywhere. CRISPR represents the ability to easily and cheaply modify human DNA to cure disease, and maybe throw in a few enhancements along the way.
Even though currently this technology is being used to understand and cure genetic disorders, we believe the future implications of this would be immense.
CRISPR doesn’t really do much by itself, but when paired with CRISPR-associated protein-9 nuclease (Cas-9) it has the ability to find any gene in DNA or RNA, break it apart, and replace it with something else.
CRISPR can be programmed to go through our genomes and identify specific parts that need to be changed. The Cas-9 is like a molecular pair of scissors that cuts those parts out. They are then replaced with either a gene delivered by the same CRISPR, or automatically regenerated by the host cell.
Understanding the Landscape
We started our research with reading everything that was available about CRISPR. This really helped us thoroughly understand the technology, where it currently stands and in what direction is it heading.
CRSIPR as a technique is becoming really popular. In fact, there are DIY CRISPR Kits thats are available online that anyone can purchase. There are also workshops available to learn this gene editing tool - for kids as young as 13!
This made us realize that CRISPR in the future could be easily accessible to a lot of people.
We then started reading about designer babies. We know that some research in this direction has started happening already but we are far away from making this a reality.
But what happens when humans start having control over unborn babies? What if you know how your baby will look and behave? Would you want to change something about them?
What Else Might Happen?
Where all can CRISPR have an impact?
The implications of this are enormous. We can engineer food and animals, and even bacteria to create bioplastics and biofuels. We can target viruses like HIV and eradicate them. And we can edit humans.
This is where the ethics start to get a bit shaky. Editing humans will allow us to target genetic disorders such as muscular dystrophy. Edited human cells can be used to fight and eliminate cancer. The benefits are potentially huge.
But we think this might be a slippery slope to other edits that humans might want to make. Why stop at eliminating hereditary disease when you can also increase the chances of a person being born with perfect vision, a high metabolism rate, and high levels of extraversion that will serve them well in their future careers? If you could choose, why wouldn’t you?
We think this will have an impact beyond just family planning: relationships will be viewed differently, government regulations will step in to protect human rights (or not), and hiring practices might even shift.
We started very broad in the human genome editing space, brainstorming on what future jobs, products, relationships, magazine covers etc could look like. Here are a few images from that brainstorm.
We eventually narrowed it down to designer babies - where we realized most ethical problems lied. What happens when you can edit your own baby's genes?
We started out by sketching the concept, the features and what the product might look like.
We explored some of these questions by imagining what family planning tools might become available in the age of genetically engineered pregnancies. We imagine the Combinator, a device that is readily available at your local pharmacy. The purpose of this product would be to analyze the combination of two samples of DNA to predict the possibilities available for an engineered pregnancy.
So a couple could get this device, put in a strand of hair or drop of blood from each partner, and get a printout telling them what disease markers are present in their DNA and whether they’re treatable. Something like this sort of happens today, but after fertilization.
The device accepts different types DNA samples: blood, saliva, or hair. Blood will give you the most accurate results, and hair the least accurate.
We’ve made the device very simple, with only one setting: the bias dial. You can set the ratio of the genetic data taken form each sample by turning the dial left or right.
But what happens when the device keeps giving you results that you don’t want? What if with your partner, there is no avoiding alzheimers? Or if the combination of your genomes cannot produce a child that is above average?
What happens when the device promises you a child that scores well above average in all the desirable traits, but your child is struggling to perform in school and has a hard time making friends?
Or what if you are looking for that “perfect match”? Do you evaluate your dates based on genetic compatibility? Do you tell your dates that you’re doing this?
What I learnt
- In depth desk research of a new emerging technology
- Sketching and creating a physical object
- Understanding social implications of today's emerging technologies on our future lives
- Since it was speculative, it was very hard to test it. We can place a solution in front of people and believe that human emotions will remain the same in the future, but I believe that still remains unknown