Editing Life

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20160209

In the last couple of years, a new genetic technology has taken the world of biology by storm. It is known as CRISPR and it allows scientists to change the DNA code of any organism precisely, quickly and cheaply. The A's, G's, C's and T's of the genetic code have never been so easy to edit and rewrite. Professor Matthew Cobb, a biologist at the University of Manchester, has witnessed the profound impact of CRISPR on his field and for Radio 4, he explores the enormous potential and the challenges unleashed by this new power over the genetic code.

Its invention four years ago came out of apparently arcane science on how bacteria defend themselves from viruses. Now there is speculation about when the first CRISPR baby will born. This will be a child which will have begun as the first human embryo to have a genetic fault edited and corrected in such a way that its descendents will also never carry that gene and suffer the disease it causes.

CRISPR's appearance and rapid adoption by scientists around the world has made hitherto impractical genetic manipulations possible and doable in any species. The most controversial form of genetic engineering - human germline line gene therapy (on single celled embryos, egg and sperm - now looks feasible because of CRISPR's ease and accuracy. The ethical debate about germline gene therapy has a much greater sense of urgency for scientists and non-scientists alike.

The applications and concerns about CRISPR's potential uses extend way beyond the human germline. The molecular technology could also be used to spread lethal genes through wild populations of pest animals and plants - such as malaria-carrying mosquitoes, invasive cane toads in Australia or weeds. Many question whether this is an invention we could control once it had been released into the environment.

Matthew talks to CRISPR inventors and users, a parent of a child who might be treated in the future with CRISPR therapy, ecologists, bioethicists and a biohacker about how we should handle this powerful new technology.

Matthew Cobb is Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester and the author of popular science books such as 'Life's Greatest Secret - The Race to Crack the Genetic Code' and 'The Egg and Sperm Race'.