The vision of dinosaurs and other extinct species coming to life may seem the stuff of science fiction, but at least one scientist envisions just that happening in the next five years. The CRISPR-Cas9 discovery has opened many doors, including research in genetic engineering.
What is the CRISPR-Cas9 Technique?
Scientists have been working toward the development of the CRISPR microbial adaptive immune system technology since 1993, when Francisco Mojica at the University of Alicante in Spain began his research and in 2000 discovered what is known as the CRISPR locus. A number of other scientists, including Alexander Bolotin, John van der Ooost, and many others contributed observations, discoveries and more through the years, leading to the 2013 successful harnessing of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique for genome editing by Feng Zhang. With this knowledge and technique came geneticists’ ability to selectively add, subtract, or change the genetic code.
In layman’s terms, CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to change the undesirable to the desirable, much as a word processing program does with spelling and grammar errors – except that in the world of genetics, it is not so much “errors” that are being added or removed, but characteristics.
Dinosaurs May Live Again, Thanks to Genetics
One application of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique is that of recreating dinosaurs and other extinct species. Dr. Jack Horner, a world-renowned paleontologist and consultant to director Steven Spielberg on all four of the “Jurassic Park” films, is optimistic in his prediction that current developments being made by scientists at Harvard and Yale will yield living dinosaurs in the near future.
Twenty years ago, when the first “Jurassic Park” came to the silver screen, Horner and others in his field believed the way to recreate living dinosaurs was to use their ancient DNA. Since then, science has learned that those DNA strands degraded over time, rendering them non-viable for bringing back extinct species. With that realization, Horner determined that reverse engineering current species to devolve them, rather than evolve them, could hold the key to the conundrum.
Based on the theory that birds are in fact dinosaurs, a team of scientists began tweaking the genes of chicken embyros in 2015, successfully creating chickens who no longer had beaks, but rather snouts. The other three major differences between ancient dinosaurs and modern-day birds is the lack of a long tail, arms and hands will require further genetic modifications, something on which Horner says he is working.
Researchers from Yale explained that their interest in the genetic research was not to create a “dino-chicken” but to understand the processes that lead to the evolution from a snout to a beak.
Genetic Engineering Opens New Doors Including Questions About Its Ethics
Genetic engineering in its most basic definition is the process of adding new DNA to an organism. Genetic engineering provides scientists to work more precisely with the exact “recipe” of a single gene, providing both faster and more predictable outcomes than with other methods.
One of the research practices of genetic engineering, that of creating chimera, poses some questions about how ethical the technique is, particularly when it comes to mixing human DNA with that of other species.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines chimera as “…an organism or tissue that contains at least two different sets of DNA, most often originating from the fusion of as many different zygotes (fertilized eggs).
In current research being conducted at the University of California, Davis, scientists are in the beginning stages of trying to grow human organs inside pigs that could then be used for human transplants. This is one prospective answer the scientific community is exploring to address the issue of the need for more human organs for transplant to save lives. In the United States, 22 people die each day waiting for an organ; in the UK, three people die because of unavailable transplant organs.
Questions abound, though, about how much human DNA in an animal is too much – at what point does the animal then become human, with the same rights as a human being? Is it ethical to grow human organs in animals that will then have to die to provide a transplant organ? Can organs grown in an animal then transfer that animal’s vulnerability to disease to the human in whose body the organ is transplanted? These and many other questions will need to be examined and answered not only by the scientific community, but by society at large.
In conclusion, these are just two of the many exciting prospects that the CRISPR-Cas9 technique offers to science and to society. Who knows if the answers to some of medicine’s most pressing needs might lie within the abilities now afford to science through this discovery?
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