Wired revels in the newest scientific revolution – the ability to rewrite our genes with ease:
The stakes, however, have changed. Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. “These are monumental moments in the history of biomedical research,” Baltimore says. “They don’t happen every day.”
Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D.
It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.
Today, behind a set of four locked and sealed doors in a lab at the Harvard School of Public Health, a special set of mosquito larvae of the African species Anopheles gambiae wriggle near the surface of shallow tubs of water. These aren’t normal Anopheles, though. The lab is working on using Crispr to insert malaria-resistant gene drives into their genomes. It hasn’t worked yet, but if it does … well, consider this from the mosquitoes’ point of view. This project isn’t about reengineering one of them. It’s about reengineering them all.
Kevin Esvelt, the evolutionary engineer who initiated the project, knows how serious this work is. The basic process could wipe out any species.
([Harvard geneticist George] Church says tinkering with one woolly mammoth is way less scary than messing with whole populations of rapidly reproducing insects. “I’m afraid of everything,” he says. “I encourage people to be as creative in thinking about the unintended consequences of their work as the intended.”)