The so-called CRISPR technique for editing the genes of plants and animals is being hailed as a more acceptable face of genetic engineering. After all, it doesn’t rely on the insertion of genes from one species into another—which is what previous techniques allowed and what alarmed critics.
No, this technique can cut out precisely an offending gene and let the cell sow things up like new afterwards. No chance of strange interspecies complications. No random mutations created by gene guns that can never shoot straight by design. Just a little editing of an existing gene to subtract what we do not want from a plant or animal (including ourselves).
Hence, the breathless coverage.
But as with practically every biologically driven endeavor these days, we are forgetting first principles as explained by pioneering ecologist Garrett Hardin who tells us that “[t]he science of ecology is founded on this generalization: We can never do merely one thing.”
Not surprisingly, it turns out that CRISPR may not be as accurate as advertised. A recent studyrevealed that “in around a fifth of cells, CRISPR causes deletions or rearrangements more than 100 DNA letters long. These surprising changes are sometimes thousands of letters long.” Oops!
The linked article continues: “So why have the thousands of teams using CRISPR failed to discover this before? Because they have been looking for small mutations in a narrow region around the target site. If that whole region is deleted, this approach makes it appear as if there have been no mutations at all.” As the author of the study noted, “You find what you look for.”
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