Golden Age of Biotechnology
A new genome editing technique is allowing us to alter DNA—the source code of life—with unprecedented precision. It is known as CRISPR, and with it, we can target and change a gene from any cell of any species without interfering with any other genes. If that’s not enough, we are able to edit these genes at just a fraction of the cost of previous methods.
So not only is this technique remarkably precise, it’s also remarkably cheap.
As a result, CRISPR has ushered in a new era of genetic engineering, one that could allow us to protect our crops from drought and infestation, erase genetic diseases in humans and other species, and (perhaps) even reverse aging.
But while the transformative nature of CRISPR is virtually uncontested in the scientific community, most of us don’t really know what it is or understand much about how it actually works. In fact, it seems that many have a rather unfortunate misunderstanding about CRISPR gene editing—namely, that it is so absurdly easy, it is literally as simple as “point and click.”
Admittedly, we’ve even used such phrasing in order to highlight just how transformative and simple this system is when compared with earlier methods. And as it turns out, this is a bit of a problem.
In truth, there are a number of researchers who, for one reason or another, aren’t able to utilize this remarkable tool. Fortunately, there are a number of individuals working to change that.
To that end, I recently talked with Edward Perello, who is the Chief Business Officer of Desktop Genetics and has a MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise from the University of Cambridge, about gene editing, CRISPR, and what’s being done to ensure that this technique really is as easy (and accessible) as it should be.
UNCOVERING THE PROMISE OF CRISPR
To begin, Perello is quick to note that CRISPR really is remaking our world. “It’s ushering in a new golden age of biotechnology,” he states, “one where we can understand the genetic cause of all disease and have the sci-fi treatments that we’ve been waiting for.”
Indeed, when I asked him for the most basic definition of what CRISPR give us, Perello succinctly sums, “In the near future it means actual treatments for diseases that are horribly chronic or even lethal. Today, it’s helping us understand exactly how our genomes work.”
Yet, while he readily acknowledges the revolutionary nature of this gene editing technology (and the potential that it has to save literally millions of lives), Perello notes that the keys to all of the aforementioned advances were not thrust upon us with the advent of CRISPR.
“Everyone says, ‘CRISPR is super easy, and anyone can do it for $60. It’s cheap. It’s wonderful.’ And it is, compared to the old mechanisms of genome editing, but there’s problems…there’s still a lot of expertise that’s required, a lot of tacit knowledge.”
He clarifies that, in truth, many doors are still closed, and it is only through carefully orchestrated testing—testing which comes as a result of rigorous scientific investigation—that we will (finally) be able to gain access to these advancements.
THE HARD TRUTH: CRISPR ISN’T EASY (OR EASILY UNDERSTOOD)
To date, one of the main roadblocks that is preventing us from moving forward is the fact that many individuals working in the field simply don’t have the resources necessary to reap the benefits of CRISPR. Primarily, this is because CRISPR is actually a huge process involving a multitude of steps, and each of the steps requires advanced knowledge in order to complete it.
“In reality” Perello clarifies, “this [CRISPR] is really tough. You need expertise in cell line engineering; you need to have cell culture facilities; you need to sequence everything; you need to have synthesis partners; you need to have people who can clone these into cells…and you see that the problem just spirals, and it gets very expensive.”
And if that’s not enough to convince you that CRISPR is a little more difficult than just ‘point and click,’ keep in mind that this is a new technique and, thus, the methods are constantly changing and updating. “No one is fully aligned on what method works best, and there are different rules for different cells and species, none of which we know really well” Perello adds.
Think that’s all the issues? Think again. There are still the errors in design and execution that we must contend with, and such errors could ultimately spell disaster for a project.
The design, for example, is the quickest part of the process; however, as Perello notes, “if you mess this up, then you are going to spend the next three to six months conducting an experiment doomed to fail.” Perello concludes, “So it might sound like 60 bucks and a plasmid and you’re CRISPERing, but it’s much more hardcore.”
That said, we can help to truly usher in the “new golden age of biotechnology” by ensuring that the experts who need to access this tool are able to reap the benefits of CRISPR.
HANDING OVER THE KEYS TO CRISPR
This is where Desktop Genetics comes in. They protect projects from unforeseen errors or mistakes, help individuals navigate all of the the complex steps that are a fundamental part of the CRISPR system, and even assist with understanding the results.
Perello clarifies, “We solved the design problem by bringing all the tools together in one place…so people come to us and say, ‘I’ve got a small CRISPR experiment that I need to do.’ Great. Use our software, design it, and they can do it themselves.” You can also send in a list of targets, and the team will take care of the bioinformatics to ensure that you get exactly what you want.
Alternatively, as previously mentioned, those who want assistance throughout the entire process are able to get it. Desktop Genetics can design, manufacture, package, screen, and even analyze the results.
“We get all of the partners together,” Perello states, “all of the people who conduct any separate step that is required, and we make that available to the user. We can link them up with every single person who has the capabilities to deliver the end results to them, and we can even have the ability to curate the results and help people understand them.”
In short, Desktop Genetics guides individuals throughout the CRISPR process. “It’s helping them design for success, so that they can get their data, and then making sure that they have access to the people who can help them execute the experiment correctly.”
And the DeskGen platform is available to academic users for free.
So, no. CRISPR is not as easy as “point and click,” and chances are, it never really will be. That’s not how science (and certainly not how genetics) really works. However, there are companies today that allow individuals to modify any gene, in any cell, in any species without even stepping into a lab. Since they do all the legwork, basically, they are guaranteeing that all scientists are able to utilize CRISPR for various forms of genetic engineering.
And that’s pretty awesome.