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Update: CRISPR

Friday, February 24, 2017 - 05:00 PM

(Photo Credit: NIH/NIAID/Flickr)

It's been almost two years since we learned about CRISPR, a ninja-assassin-meets-DNA-editing-tool that has been billed as one of the most powerful, and potentially controversial, technologies ever discovered by scientists. In this episode, we catch up on what's been happening (it's a lot), and learn about CRISPR's potential to not only change human evolution, but every organism on the entire planet.

Out drinking with a few biologists, Jad finds out about something called CRISPR. No, it’s not a robot or the latest dating app, it’s a method for genetic manipulation that is rewriting the way we change DNA. Scientists say they’ll someday be able to use CRISPR to fight cancer and maybe even bring animals back from the dead. Or, pretty much do whatever you want. Jad and Robert delve into how CRISPR does what it does, and consider whether we should be worried about a future full of flying pigs, or the simple fact that scientists have now used CRISPR to tweak the genes of human embryos.

This episode was reported and produced by Molly Webster and Soren Wheeler. Special thanks to Jacob S. Sherkow.

 

Guests:

Jennifer Doudna, Kevin Esvelt, Eugene V. Koonin, Beth Shapiro and Carl Zimmer

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Comments [50]

Besmir Likaj from Montreal, Canada

Have you guys though about the implication of eradicating a full species. Is that morally acceptable to commit a genocide on a full species. What if the bacteria is necesary in the process of natural selection and evolution. Or even if the bacteria or virus is the driver of gene mutation.

Also, regarding the "crisper pill" that could remplace antibiotics. What are the limits of chrispr outside the body. Can this case if used on a large enough segment of the population an extinction of the species of bacteria or virus. Hence comes back to the moral and scientific implications of such a method.

Mar. 27 2017 06:46 PM
Brendan from NYC

Very interesting episode. Quick question to hosts / guests of the episode specifically about "Gene Driving":

What would happen if two people, who were descendants of different people who both choose to "gene drive" the same exact gene but in opposite ways, were to reproduce? eg. one was a descendant of someone who "gene drove" the gene to make them tall and the other person's parents "gene drove" the same gene to make them short - what would happen to that gene??

Thanks!

Mar. 23 2017 04:34 PM
Wilson from NYC

RIP headphone users. The audio mixing made it kind of hard to hear the main points.

Otherwise cool stuff.

Mar. 22 2017 11:58 AM
Diane from Minneapolis

I have the eye disease referenced in the story. It's called Fuch's Dystrophy, and the only treatment right now is a cornea transplant. So yeh, I would easily choose having my eyes injected with a syringe full of viruses over a transplant or blindness.

Mar. 20 2017 08:30 PM
JD from Sacramento

The conclusion of the story on "Gene Driving" is eerily similar to the story "Seventy-Two Letters" from Ted Chiang's book Stories of Your Life and Others. Both are focused on passing genes from that first generation on to the second, but the story takes a really interesting vantage poin tof doing good in the face of evil, while the podcast seems to look at the possibilities of problems in the future...

Mar. 16 2017 10:29 PM
bigwavealex from 32303

Lamarck is looking better everyday.

Mar. 14 2017 11:03 PM
David from CT

Once again Science Fiction is way ahead of reality of new technology and the moral dilemma of using it

I point you to a episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. A group of Scientists have created some "super" children whose immune system is so advance it detects threats and proactively attacks the pathogen. The Scientists start getting sick and then they discover that the children's immune system is seeing the other humans as a pathogen and start killing humans that don't have the same advanced immune system. In the end the children have to be kept isolated from the rest of the Human race and possibly the rest of the Universe for the duration of the children's lives.

This is the same possibility that CRISPR may have for the future. Imagine a scientist that feels it is his moral duty to "improve" the human race and to do so is to rid the human race of less desirable genes, like those that code for dark skin tone or red hair or green eyes or (well you get the idea) The scientist releases into the environment a virus with the desired changes and the drive gene code and how would you defend against this. In all the history of human kind you cannot point to a single instance where someone had the power to play God and they put that genie back into the bottle.

Mar. 13 2017 01:20 PM
Allie N

In addition to the issue of consent, any human application of CRISPR must look at the question of equal access. There are many people who wouldn't be able to afford that theoretical $1,000 anti-Alzheimer's gene. If this sort of editing were ever to become legal and widespread, health insurance or other means would have to ensure that the price, geographic distribution of CRISPR technology, etc. was available to all those interested.

Mar. 13 2017 11:32 AM
Kenyoni from SF Bay Area

Why is there a sudden concern about modifying human babies without their consent? Most of us have had modifications without our consent. I was circumcised without my consent, and I'm pretty pissed about that. I was also given a lot of immunizations without my consent (modifying my immune system) which I am not upset about and was probably a good thing. Is a line suddenly being drawn in the sand just because it's a new technology people don't understand?

As for gene drives in humans. If we have the technology to create humane gene drives, then we have the technology to undo said gene drive. Also, mean human maternal age is currently about 25 years worldwide, in opposed to a couple weeks for mosquitoes. It would take thousands of years for a human gene drive to propagate to any significant portion of the population. If Stephen Hawking (and many others) is to be believed, the human race will have far bigger things to contend with long before any significant propagation.

Mar. 13 2017 04:32 AM
Jessica De Smet from Norman, OK

Are those little blurps between your audio version of the genetic repeats supposed to sound like the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" theme?

Mar. 12 2017 09:27 PM
ET from Maryland

You mentioned that "no one loses sleep over in vitro fertilization," but I have! I think of of children who are frozen in time, and actually, for real, sitting in a freezer, waiting for the loving and warm embrace of their parents to give them the fullness of life that we all want innocent children to have. I think of the destruction and abuse that is waiting for most of them: perhaps some CRISPR experiment that goes badly? Degradation over the course of years and years of sitting in a freezer that causes their death? Thrown in a trash can once they are no longer useful? I know the children themselves are too little understand it, but we do, and we should treat them how we would want to be treated. The Catholic Church has always rejected the technological creation of other human beings in a medical or scientific laboratory, and instead teaches that all children deserve the loving embrace of their parents from the very moment of their conception, achieved through the intimacy of natural conception.

On the other hand, I suffer from a chronic disease and recognize and welcome the benefit that CRISPR could have for the curing of all manner of diseases. But do let's think about it carefully before we do something stupid or evil! No experimentation on human embryos, please.

Mar. 12 2017 04:03 PM
Aaron from Australia

The possibilities for weaponising CRISPR are pretty terrifying. Genocide? It's in the name it's literally "gene-kill". It can't get more specific than that. Can it target individuals? Is a combination of CRISPRs specific enough for assasinations? Could a totalitarian government condemn and sentence someone by just by a piece of hair left at a crime scene? Don't bother catching them, just release the "hit list" into the water supply! Or it is possible to simply turn all criminals of the state green for easy identification? Could a CRISPR arms race and war happen? Will World leaders and VIPs need to start living in hermetically sealed homes?

Mar. 11 2017 04:20 AM
BC

The idea of a gene-drive combined with lateral gene transfer scares me, because it means the gene drive will be pushing itself all over a bunch of unrelated species.

I should also say that they explained the need for a gene-drive incorrectly. They said that a child has a 1/2 chance of getting the new gene modification, and the grandchild has a 1/4th chance. Technically, that's true, except that replacement level fertility is 2. In other words, each mosquito has (on average) two surviving children and four surviving grandchildren. That's what happens in a stable population.

What this means is that if you did gene-editing (without a gene-drive) on 10% of the mosquito population, the child generation would not have 5% modified genes. It would have 10%. The grandchild generation would also have 10%. The ratio of modified genes in the population stays stable.

Mar. 10 2017 07:17 PM

What a fascinating development is underway. It feels like dangling over the edge of a new world.

The ethical dilemma the episode focuses on is not going to be waived away by any easy solutions, even restrictive easy solutions that might give someone a sense of safety. If you decide to edit a disease out of the genome, you make a decision that affects many who have not consented. However, if you restrict someone else from making a decision about the genome, you also make a decision that affects many who have not consented. Maybe they wanted to be cured. Or, maybe they even wanted to be taller. I'm not saying they certainly would, only that each possibility deserves equal consideration. You're making a choice that will affect lots of people without their consent, either way. If a government or other authority intervenes to prevent someone from curing a million people of a disease, they're as responsible for that as a scientist who unleashed a disease on a million people. There should be no status-quo bias, and human history doesn't really support the hypothesis that central and reputable authorities make better moral decisions than ordinary individuals.

Mar. 10 2017 04:01 PM
Henry from Melbourne, Aus

*that should say NO need. He's cured is what I'm saying.

Mar. 09 2017 05:31 PM
Henry from Melbourne, Aus

My cousin with hemophillia A has been on CRISPR trials in the U.K... he is now producing 100% of his own factor 8 ( the clotting factor that hemophilia A's can't make themselves)... it's been nearly a year and he's had need for treatment. Literally miraculous.

Mar. 09 2017 05:28 PM
Jon from USA

Great insight into this technology. This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you. But, but, but...So what if a gene gets passed on? If we don't like it or there's a problem why can't we just change it back again with a copy of the original DNA? What don't I get?

Mar. 09 2017 12:47 AM
Todd from nashville

CRISPR is both fascinating and scary at the same time. While the prospect of “curing” cancer, heart disease, and any more of the ones that have already been done (leukemia, sickle cell) is elating, the prospect of Hitler’s dream race coming true is just almost overwhelming, not to mention some terrorist group getting it and unleashing some unstoppable bacteria or virus on the world. It could easily be more devastating than a nuclear attack and probably much easier to obtain and spread. This genie will not be put back in the bottle, so, PLEASE make sure it stays in hands of the good guys.

Mar. 08 2017 02:49 PM
R M

Great episode. I was able to share it with my young children 11 and 8 and the older one was able to comprehend the concept and see the ethical dilemma. This is what makes Radiolab so wonderful.

Mar. 07 2017 03:46 PM
Chris

Why the sudden moral conflict how this will affect future generations, who have no say in the decisions made today that will affect them directly.

Humans have always done that since the stone age.
They figure out a new better simpler way that improves their lives, which changes the future for everybody to come.

Mar. 07 2017 01:42 PM
Andrew Palfreyman from San Jose CA

In the USA and UK there's a pressing need to identify and fix the Moron Gene (Trump, Brexit are symptoms).

Mar. 04 2017 05:19 PM
m from Scotland

Never mind the unintended consequences, can CRISPR be used to one day develop, god forbid, Gene Terrorism? Sure, today it's getting rid of cancer cells or alzeimer's genes, but tommorow what if you used CRISPR to delete... any part of anyone's DNA?

Mar. 03 2017 10:55 PM
Meredith from Colorado

IVF technology is a technology-based change that most of us accept without bellyaching, but we've known for at least 10 years that our DNA changes NATURALLY! Over our lifespans, even if we steer clear of CRISPR injections, our genetics naturally alter for better or worse... so I think I'll gladly opt CRISPR's "better" changes.
Here's a taste of the bitter truth from way back in 2008: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/mendel_didnt_have_the_whole_picture_our_genome_changes_over_lifetime_johns_hopkins_experts_say

Mar. 03 2017 06:26 PM
Paco from California

One utilization of CRISPR I have not heard of is long term space travel or planet colonization, from food production to negating detrimental effect on the human body. Altering attributes of on individual would make it more comfortable over a life time. If DNA for a mammoth is known and we can reverse engineer, so can't we also with ourselves :)

Mar. 02 2017 08:19 PM
Eryn Alloway from Richmond, VA

A reason to be aware of changing our genetic makeup - https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/60-second-science/neandertals-live-on-in-our-genomes/ - neandertal dna sequences that are present in modern day humans still have "widespread, measurable impacts on gene expression to this day." (evoluntionary geneticist interviewed in episode). We can't imagine the possibilities, both good and bad... I think this is a great tool, that needs to be used as carefully as possible.

Mar. 02 2017 12:29 PM
Katherine Griffin from Provo, Utah

In the episode, Radiolab quickly mentions a procedure to cure a specific type of blindness using crispr. My niece, who has the genetic deformity, will be apart of that crispr study. Who wouldn't be excited at the prospect of her being able to see one day? I am so excited!

Mar. 02 2017 12:23 PM
John Dove from Revere, MA

Amazing episode.

The next morning after hearing this episode I was in the midst of grooming myself for a business trip and it suddenly occurred to me, if CRSPR can slice unwanted genes in two, maybe someone could use this mechanism to slice out unwanted nose hair--especially those ones that seem to grow an inch long overnight and resist all attempts to clip them. :<) :<)

Mar. 02 2017 06:24 AM
Lorena from San Diego

I want to follow up for my last comment and say that I'm not against this biological technology, it could do a lot of great things in the medical community I just think it is important to note who has power over it and to start setting very clear ethical guidelines before it gets to the point that we need to be on defense

Mar. 01 2017 03:42 PM
Lorena from San Diego

I think one important question that wasnt asked is who will be in charge of this new technology because one of the concerns that Carl started to have that was never really looked into was what if someone who is in charge of this technology says I want to take out the black gene or the gay gene and then you're getting into human engineering and white supremacy. I know it sounds crazy and you could say we don't need to worry about it now, but we should put up protections. Ow so that we don't have to scramble if it happens. I mean look at 2027 and the sentiments toward minorities still and who is leading this country.

Mar. 01 2017 03:05 PM
Shari P from Chicago

I have a BRCA1 gene mutation. I raise my hand high to volunteer for CRISPR! Not kidding. Call me. Please.

Mar. 01 2017 12:26 PM
Kate

I love when Carl Zimmer visits! Please invite him over more often!

Mar. 01 2017 10:49 AM
Allen Husker from Mexico City

The episode focuses on the scary possibilities with scary music of what may happen without really talking the benefits. I'm a father with a son who has a disease that has been cured in rats with gene editing. I can't tell you the emotion that fills me everytime I hear about advances in gene editing. The average life expectancy for his disease is less than 30. Why not focus on that? Saving lives. You make it sound end of the world, dooms day. You've had episodes where you've talked about the end of antibiotics and how scary that is. This could be what replaces antibiotics! You set it up as positive, but you specifically leave it as scary and doomsday. If you had written the episode the other way around, I'm sure the comments would be more positive.

Mar. 01 2017 07:44 AM
Stefan Wrobel

This just sounds the same as the original episode to me so far...

Feb. 28 2017 03:49 PM
Gerald Lasser

Opening the gene editing process up to many is in my opinion the most ethicality challenging aspect about CRISPR. CRISPR's ease of use and low cost reduces the barrier to gene editing and many more people can now be involved. A consensus on ethically acceptable methods is much easier to achieve with a small group of highly skilled scientists than with the now much larger group of technologists who are less likely to understand the full ramifications of the methods they are using. An overseeing organization with the power to censure individual groups may be the only way to insure the ethical methods are followed.

Feb. 28 2017 01:07 PM
Paul from Alexandria VA

Just a quick thought, and there are lots more important things, but why does being tall such a "good" thing?

Feb. 28 2017 11:38 AM
Larry Richards from Tampa, FL

This quote from "Jurassic Park" immediately came to mind: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Feb. 28 2017 09:49 AM
Drew Button from Denver, CO

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. - Dr. Ian Malcom / Jurassic Park

Feb. 27 2017 06:10 PM
Xiang from Tübingen

2/2

As of the concern that this might create a market for genetic modification, I don't think this would be in any way essentially different than the other medical advancements to improve life expectancy, which might come with a price in some countries and which are certainly not available to people in less developed countries. What's so holy about the genes that makes it fundamentally different? If you're, say, curing Alzheimer, you're still curing a disease with advanced medical technologies. It just so happens that this disease is cured via genetic means, not surgical means. Whether or not curing such diseases should be costly, I believe is quite a different topic than the one people seem to be debating here. If you believe health is a fundamental right and one shouldn't have the right to be healthier than others just because he's wealthy, that's a well valid belief. But then the debate should be on all kinds of advanced medicine and treatments etc. and should not be confined to genetic modification.

Certainly genetic modification might fail and result in damage to the person being operated upon. But so might all kinds of medical advancements at the time they were developed. They were always being improved upon via trial and error, and even then there can be a failure rate, which I think is totally normal.

IMO people need to see things more to their essence instead of being confounded by not necessarily rational fears/concerns out of social conventions or whatnot.

(Just accidentally hit Back when I was almost finished typing... This is a rephrasing so there might be something that I've forgotten. Was quite upset about it...)

Feb. 27 2017 11:03 AM
XIang from Tübingen

People just tend to have a lot of irrational fear for things they perceive as "new", while not realizing that in essence this thing might not be new at all, but has actually been going on since forever.

Human beings have always been striving to obtain a somehow "bettered" version of a species. One such example is called "interbreeding", which creates a lot of weird results and even "abominations" already. For example, mule, crossbred from horse and donkey, can't even reproduce. Scottish Fold, which is a species of cat with a peculiar type of ear, is actually born with hereditary bone disease, yet people just keep breeding it because they think it's "cute". Is "flying pigs" really weirder than this? Would the conservatives find this inhumane and cruel enough? CRISPER just makes this process much more precise, while the essence is really the same.

In fact, not only human beings have produced such seemingly random and curious species as a result, the nature itself seems to do it as well. I have just been reading an article about Aspidoscelis uniparens https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_grassland_whiptail_lizard, a species of lizard which only consists of females and has three sets of DNAs (instead of the common two). Their eggs hatch into new individuals without the need of fertilization. Now, if somebody created such a species via CRISPER, which doesn't even have sex and has an additional set of DNA, would the conservatives been denouncing it as work of the devil already? Yet this is exactly what the nature is capable of doing.

I don't think using CRISPER is in any way going beyond what the nature is able to do. On the contrary, perhaps people just don't know the truth about the nature well enough, which is capable of much "weirder" (to human eyes) things than this. Not to mention human beings have essentially been doing the same (albeit cruder) thing since a very long time ago.

Feb. 27 2017 11:02 AM
raadore from canada

Wow. All I pray for now is that the whole world, or at least all the women, turns Catholic. The only way CRISPR-altered human genome can escape the labs is through a woman's uterus using IVF. The only church who opposes IVF, and holds it as a grave sin, is the Roman Catholic Church. Looks like they are the only true defenders of humanity.

Feb. 27 2017 09:42 AM
Tyson Vaughan from Alexandria, VA

This is the closest thing to Ice-9 that has yet been invented. The CRISPR-based gene drive is an extinction engine. It worries me that New Zealand is considering using gene drives to eliminate invasive mammalian species (like mice and house cats) from their islands. And if that's not chilling enough, think about what an ethno-nationalist regime (or even a single rogue scientist) could do by tuning a gene drive to a particular set of genes associated with a specific racial heritage. Or, heck, a particular personality type.

Feb. 26 2017 09:01 PM
SusanR from Burlington, VT

The argument that informed consent cannot be obtained from the potential fetus for CRISPR-induced changes, and so use of CRISPR is immoral, has a flaw, I think. What about all of those would-be parents who have significant genetic defects? The fetus is not consulted about whether it wants to be born with those genetic defects, many of which are now known about by the parents. Quite the conundrum, I should think!

Feb. 26 2017 04:34 PM
Ellie from Colorado

Hi,

Great episode. I felt one thing was not mentioned and overlooked. When talking about what parents wouldn't choose not to add the anti-alzheimers gene, you said, of course what parent wouldn't want to add that to their child. The missing piece here is that ONLY parents who can afford in vitro will even be offered this choice and be able to afford to make it. There is potential to create an even greater divide between wealthy families that can afford to choose genes and families who cannot afford it. Using the alzheimers example, that could become a disease only found in people below a certain income bracket.

Feb. 26 2017 07:32 AM
Miles Standish from Santa Cruz, Ca.

A very scary episode. In a lot of ways this reminds me of the discovery of nuclear fission back during World War II. Society has tried to contain nuclear power, but for how long? Science and scientific discoveries about the Universe can't be stopped. We can't change the rules of life and physics. Mother Nature is not open for debate. Her rules are what they are, and she doesn't play fair or allow for appeals. The question is how society is going to deal with these new discoveries, and make no mistake, there will be more that may be just as scary.

I feel like the lemmings are starting to move towards the cliff....

Feb. 25 2017 08:57 PM
Charlie from New York, NY

Good episode, but let's not over-hype the capabilities of gene drives or other CRISPR-related technologies.
For example, the episode overlooked that fact that in order to work, gene drives must overcome a pretty big obstacle: evolution.
http://www.nature.com/news/gene-drives-thwarted-by-emergence-of-resistant-organisms-1.21397

Feb. 25 2017 06:24 PM
Kale Roberts from Tampa, FL

If our bodies have begun to build a tolerance to antibiotics, is there a potential of our bodies building a tolerance of crisper since it is activating enzymes in the body that would not normally be activated at this pace?

Feb. 25 2017 05:57 PM

Excellent episode! I produced a video for Popular Science featuring Kevin Esvelt and Megan Palmer about the possibilities and potential pitfalls of CRISPR. https://youtu.be/1joB-WTlOnc

Feb. 25 2017 04:02 PM
Rudy Ruiz from Los Angeles

Great Show, really had me thinking about the ramifications of new technologies. Could CRISPR be used to cure Diabetes or to assist the Bee population? But once changed, what would be expressed in future generations. This is why I listen to Radio Lab!

Feb. 25 2017 03:14 PM
Tim K from San Diego

I feel that this episode overlooked one of the more worriesome implications of using CRISPR to edit a CRISPR sequence into a genome. Which is the fact that since CRISPR is an integral part of a cell's immune system, if they edit a CRISPR sequence into a genome so that it is passed on to future generations and that edit turns out to have unforeseen negative effects, it may well be extremely hard to remove that edit from the population. This is because they would have no choice but to use CRISPR to remove the edit they made to the cell's CRISPR system and unless they are absolutely certain they can do this with pinpoint precision they might accidentally insert a CRISPR variant that edits the geneome in such a way that it disables the cell's ability to use CRISPR to defend itself from Viruses. Which essentially would give the cell a form of AIDS.

Feb. 25 2017 03:10 PM
Matthew Oliver from Lewes, DE

CRISPR and Gene Drives will be the reason that Human Embryos receive their full human rights

Feb. 25 2017 10:05 AM

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