CRISPR gets a mention in the latest IPCC report as a potentially useful tool to cope with climate change. However, some people believe that biotech crops are safe and that climate change is not real (let’s call them libertarian capitalists, for convenience). Many ecological activists conversely think that genetically modified plants are evil and global warming threatens life on the planet. These stances could not be more different, yet they have something in common: they are both half right and half wrong. They are both examples of “selective science denial.” Continue reading
The first patient edited “in vivo” last week is a breaking news story, and zinc finger nuclease ZFN must be credited for the accomplishment. A putatively outdated system stealing the scene from the most celebrated technique for gene editing is a bit like Carl Lewis beating Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. Any wonder that tweets by some biotech-enthusiasts had something of a derby atmosphere, while many inattentive readers thought it was CRISPR stuff, as lay people never heard of ZFN before. Continue reading
It was August 2 when Nature published the latest stunning study, introducing to the world the first human embryos edited in the US by Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Not even a month had passed, and on August 28, those results have been challenged on a much younger and quick medium: the bioRxiv pre-print website. I felt like a déjà vu happening. It reminded me of the Nature Methods study questioning CRISPR’s precision in June. Within three weeks bioRxiv has already challenged the controversial data about off-target mutations by posting two critical analyses which soon became three. In short, this server is rewriting a part of CRISPR’s science and it is becoming an emergency tool for correcting mistakes that, inevitably, sometimes tarnish the most respected peer-reviewed publications. How does it work? Continue reading
The exploit announced last week by Nature marks an advancement in CRISPR performance in human embryos big enough to say that yes, germ line editing will probably become a viable option sooner or later. It means that some genetic diseases (at least those caused by a single mutation) can be corrected not only in the treated individuals but also in their offspring. The idea of genetic diseases disappearing from the face of Earth is bound to remain a dream, as Eric Lander explained at the 2015 Washington Summit on Human Gene Editing. In short, with rare Mendelian diseases, the vast majority of situations can currently be addressed by in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, while complex diseases are, well, too complex to handle. Anyway, when you come to efficiency and accuracy, results achieved by Shoukhrat Mitalipov and colleagues are exciting: CRISPR science walks on robust and fast legs. As for the bioethics of the experiment, we should try not to get stuck with overused labels. Continue reading
A few artists are already interested in using CRISPR to explore the border between biology and art, but scientists have so far been able to develop the artistic potential of genetics more elegantly and surprisingly. In this Nature paper, George Church’s group recalls the beginnings of cinematography by introducing old images of a galloping horse into a dividing bacterial population. Harvard researchers have chosen a historical sequence captured by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1887, using a code based on nucleotide triplets to specify pixels tonalities. The exploit is technically astonishing, and it is not just a divertissement. It represents a proof of concept that one day perhaps we will be able to build cellular recorders, that can collect and store what is going on inside cells. But enthusiasm for futuristic research applications is joined here by an ancient sense of wonder. That galloping horse turns upside down proportion and hierarchy: it is the great in the small, the elegant in the primitive, the mammal in bacteria. Science has become magic. Art indeed.
CRISPR ’s debut in the cultural programming of the Italian television occurred at “Quante storie”, a 30 minutes book show aired by the public broadcasting company (Rai 3, 23 March 2017). It went with a genuine interest into understanding the science of genome editing and many questions from the classic repertoire concerning biotechnology, from worries about economic interests at play (but if we want drugs, the pharma industry must be there) to the risk of using the new technique for eugenics purposes (the long shadow of Nazism still makes us think blond children would be favored). Continue reading
Stunning, revolutionary, momentous: these are some of the adjectives sprinkled by leading international journals over CRISPR. In the last few years the new technique of genetic modification has been mentioned in hundreds of studies, not counting the articles published in the lay press. The keyword CRISPR (pronounced crisper) produces 6 million Google search results. Being the author of a book and a blog on the topic I can be dubbed as a genome-editing-enthusiast, but the title and logo I’ve chosen for my news and views diary are a way of kidding about the frenzy. The mug standing out on the homepage echoes the famous claim “Keep calm and carry on”. Keep calm and crispr on. When major scientific achievements arrive, or unexpected obstacles come between, because there are always some, or controversy erupts over this or that application of the technology, it won’t be the end of the world. Don’t panic and keep on crispring. Continue reading