Quirks and Quarks

CRISPR - The Genetic Engineering Revolution

In just a few short years CRISPR gene editing has transformed the way genetics researchers work, and is driving advances in health care, agricultural technology and more.

A new gene editing technology is enormously accelerating work in genetics

DNA molecule (Richard Wheeler, cc-by-sa-3.0)
Over the last three years, a new genetic engineering technology has exploded on the scene in biology. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has been called revolutionary, game-changing and transformative, due to the fact that it is easier, faster and more powerful, precise, and efficient than any tool we've had for making changes to the genome. 

CRISPR seems poised to revolutionize the way we study and treat a whole range of genetic diseases. It also will have profound impact on genetic engineering of agricultural crops and animals, and on the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. And the fact that it could allow us to make permanent changes in the human genome means we might influence human evolution itself.

The power and potential of CRISPR means it raises as many ethical issues as scientific ones, as society will have to deal with new questions about whether we're wise enough to use the power over the genome that CRISPR provides.

Quirks & Quarks Producer Jim Lebans looked into the issues around CRISPR and spoke with:

  • Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, a Professor of Medical Genetics and Senior Scientist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia.  She's begun using CRISPR in her work on aniridia, a genetic eye disease.
  • Dr. Ronald Cohn, Chief of the Division of Clinical and Medical Genetics, and co-Director of the Centre for Genetic Medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He's just published on his first successful cell-based experiments in using CRISPR to correct a genetic mutation that causes Muscular Dystrophy.
  • Dr. Sylvain Moineau, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Bioinformatics at the University of Laval. He was part of a team that discovered the natural role of CRISPR as a microbial defence against viruses.
  • Dr. Feng Zhang, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Dr. Zhang is one of the key innovators who transformed the natural CRISPR system into a gene editing tool.
  • Dr. Udo Schüklenk, Professor and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics in the Department of Philosophy at Queen's University. He has engaged with questions around the ethics of using CRISPR to alter the human genome, and, more widely, its use in the agricultural and natural world.

Related Links

Science Magazine article collection - The CRISPR Revolution
Science Magazine - Breakthrough of the Year, 2015
Toronto Star article on Dr. Cohn's work
CBC News story
- Quanta Magazine story
New Yorker story