The CRISPR Revolution

UntitledI’ve now mentioned CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) gene-editing technology on several different occasions (examples here and here), but I’ve never done a very good job explaining what it is or why it matters. Since I’m convinced that CRISPR will transform the life sciences and, in a sense, Life itself, I thought I’d share some of the links that I’ve compiled in an attempt to make sense of it all. First, a couple disclaimers. This list is not comprehensive and I don’t intend for it to serve as an official “history” of CRISPR in any way. (As you’ll read below, that can be treacherous territory.) Also, a great many of the articles I cite are hidden behind paywalls. Lame, I know. To compensate, I link to a lot of science journalists, rather than scientists, which is just as well since the former are so much easier to read anyway (a phenomenon that Carl Zimmer explores at this link). Which reminds me: If you’re just here for the cartoons, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page. Finally, you should know that things are moving fast, and this blog post will probably be out of date by the time you finish reading it.


Basic Introductions to CRISPR
Several of the world’s most prestigious science journals have created websites that assemble all of the latest news related to CRISPR. You can also dig through a trove of articles about CRISPR over at Stat News, the Boston-based upstart dedicated to contemporary biology, as well as the San Francisco-based Center for Genetics and Society.


I’ve found each of the following videos and/or podcasts very helpful.


Context of Discovery
A few short years ago, scientists began to realize that CRISPR-Cas9, a naturally occurring prokaryotic immune system, could be utilized as a tool to edit DNA with great precision. Note that this list is neither exhaustive nor authoritative, and that the publication dates for some of these articles are a matter of great dispute (more on that below).

It did not take long for people to grasp the consequences of such easy genome editing. Within the year, scientists were openly discussing the “CRISPR Revolution.”


Scientists Urge Moratorium
By early 2015, scientists had used CRISPR to edit the DNA in a variety of different species (see below for specific examples). Around that time, rumors began to surface that some scientists had started using CRISPR to edit the DNA inside human embryos. In response, many of the leading geneticists in the United States called for a moratorium on editing human embryos, insisting that members of the world community should first contemplate the ethical consequences of human engineering.


Editing the Human Germ-Line
In April 2015, news broke that a group of scientists in China had used CRISPR to edit human embryos.

As you may have already guessed, reaction to the news was swift, intense, and diverse.


Summit in DC
Soon after it was revealed that scientists had used CRISPR to edit human embryos, the world’s leading scientific organizations agreed to convene a summit so that they could debate the implications of this radical new technology. The summit, which was co-hosted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Science, and the U.K. Royal Society, met in Washington D.C. during the first week of December, 2015.

Although many scientists at the summit urged a moratorium on editing human embryos, just as many proved eager to proceed. Sure enough, scarcely two months later, the U.K. granted a team of scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London permission to begin editing human embryos using CRISPR technology.


Who Deserves Credit?
As I tell my students on a daily basis, science is a social process. This is especially obvious when it comes to doling out credit for scientific achievements. In January 2016, geneticist Eric Lander published an essay recounting the discovery that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used as a tool. As nearly everyone pointed out, Lander had failed to disclose a rather blatant conflict of interest. He is president of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, which is engaged in a high-stakes patent battle over CRISPR technology. Worse yet, many felt that Lander had deliberately shortchanged the contributions of Berkeley scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who are engaged in the exact same patent dispute.


Patent Battle
If the response to Lander’s article seems especially pitched, it is because the stakes are so high. Some observers have called CRISPR the “biotech innovation of the century,” and it therefore follows that the patent is worth enormous sums of money. Determining who deserves credit is no easy matter. The case is currently in the courts.


Biotech Companies
While the patent remains in dispute, many different companies from a variety of different sectors have begun investing heavily in CRISPR-based initiatives.


Different Species
Since it may have gotten lost in the glare of designer humans, it bears repeating that scientists can also use CRISPR to manipulate the DNA of every other species. At press, they have used CRISPR to edit the DNA of many different animal species, including pigs, monkeys, dogs, rats, and fruit flies, to name just a few. As the New York Times recently remarked, it is currently “open season” when it comes to genetically editing animals. Rest assured, it is open season on plants as well.


Gene Drives
As if all that were not enough, CRISPR also enables something known as a “gene drive,” which allows scientists to alter the genetic composition of entire populations. For example, some insist that we can use gene-edited mosquitoes to eradicate malaria from the face of the Earth, once and for all. The technology has raised hopes, but it has also raised fears.


Historians Weigh In
Several of my fellow historians have attempted to place the CRISPR controversy in historical context. These are the ones I’ve found so far, though I’m sure there may be more.


On the Promise and Peril of CRISPR
CRISPR has caught the attention of a great many people, and it seems that every day brings a different long-read, think-piece, or letter-to-the-editor about CRISPR. I’ve included links to some of my favorites below.


CRISPR Cartoons
Finally, CRISPR has also inspired some fairly awesome design work. Most of the images below adorned either scientific or journalistic articles. Click on any image to view a larger, more detailed version.


Image by Dave Cutler, PNAS 113, 3/8/16: 2554.


Image by Ryan Snook, Nature 3/10/16: 156


Image by Ryan Snook, Nature, 3/10/16: 160.


Image by Lauren Solomon, Science, 2/15/13.


Image by Chris Labrooy, Nature, 2/10/16.



Image by David Parkins, Nature, 12/24/15: 469.



Image by David E. Bonazzi, Science, 12/18/15: 1445.



Image by David E. Bonazzi, Science, 12/18/15




Image by David Parkins, Nature, 06/25/15: 413.



Image by S. Thibault, Nature, 06/04/15.


Image by Ben Wiseman, Wired, August 2015



Image by Ben Wiseman, Wired, August 2015.


Image by Ben Wiseman, Wired, August 2015.


Image by Todd St. John, New Yorker, 11/16/15.



Image by Eric Palma, 03/15/16.