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The Science Behind Genetic Editing

July 13, 2018

Genetics and genetic editing has been around for a while, but recently it’s been brought out to the spotlight with the release of the new movie ‘Rampage’. This movie follows Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) a primatologist who shares a strong bond with George, an intelligent albino silverback gorilla in the zoo that Davis works at. But when a genetic experiment that’s been conducted in space by a corporation name Energyne goes wrong, and the space shuttle reentering the earth with the capsule crashes in the zoo, George is infected by the spill from the capsule. The rapid mutation of the gene causes George to become extremely aggressive and grow to an enormous size overnight. Two other animals, a wolf and an alligator are also affected, and they start a killing spree. Davis Okoye teams up with discredited geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to retrieve a hidden antidote from Energyne to stop the mutation in George, stop the other animals and to prevent a global catastrophe.

 

The movie opens with the following text on the screen:

 

“In 1993, a breakthrough new technology, known as CRISPR, gave scientists a path to treat incurable diseases through genetic editing.

 

In 2016, due to its potential for misuse, the U.S. Intelligence Community designated genetic editing a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.’”

 

The above statements are factual. There is an existing, and famous, company called ‘CRISPR Therapeutics’ that has discovered gene editing technology. CRISPR is an acronym that stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat. It is a technology that identifies defective genes and modifies gene function by altering the DNA sequence. DNA - Deoxyribonucleic acid is a spiral shaped structure in all living beings that carries all genetic information. Basically, a molecule called RNA that can read DNA sequence is used to identify the strand in the sequence that is causing the disease or abnormality. Then an enzyme that acts as a scissor cuts that section of the DNA. Once the cut is made the cell, which contains the DNA, senses the break in the chain and repairs it by gluing the cut ends. Thus, the defective gene is disabled.

 

CRISPR has already made many experimental breakthroughs in gene editing and hopes to use this technology to identify and cure diseases safely in the future.

 

For example, CRISPR has….

 

Genetically edited a mushroom to slow down the browning process.

When mushrooms are sliced, they turn brown very quickly. However, scientists at Pennsylvania State University deleted a bit of DNA in white-button mushrooms, causing them not to brown so quickly after being sliced.

 

Genetically edited a human embryo to fix a mutation that causes a deadly disease.   A mutation linked to sudden death was found in a human embryo. Scientists then used CRISPR to edit the embryo to fix this mutation. If this process is proven to be safe, this process could be a common option in the future. Diseases in unborn babies could be fixed before birth using CRISPR, ensuring that this condition wouldn’t be passed on in future generations. This could help eliminate many diseases and fatal conditions from the human population. Right now, this procedure is only experimental. According to the New York Times, “The embryos that were used in the study published on [August 2] were destroyed after about three days.”

 

Inserted a gene from a jellyfish into yeast to make it glow.

This might seem like a crazy fantasy, but CRISPR has made this fiction into fact. For less than $200, you can actually buy kits online that enable you to put a gene from a jellyfish into yeast to make it glow. This has actually been possible for a while, but CRISPR has made this process much easier for the average person.

 

“Changed bacteria from beige to dark blue” – NYT

Cory Tobin of ‘TheLab’ in Los Angeles taught a 13-year-old how to change the color of E. coli by using a gene from a coral in his synthetic biology course. The New York Times states that “The color change happened after day six”. According to Mr. Tobin. “It’s possible to do it in a day or two, but we designed the class to teach students how to prepare all the materials themselves so they can do the entire process on their own in the future.

 

In the future, CRISPR could…

 

Enable blind people to see.

Blindness and deafness are two major disabilities that reign over most of the population. Not all forms of blindness and deafness are related to genes, but most are. CRISPR could be used to re-enable hearing and sight in people with these disabilities. Studies on rats and mice have been encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. However, we have already seen genetic editing/gene therapy work on a blind person. Christian Guardino, a singer on season 12 of America’s Got Talent, was born with a retinal disease called Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA). His vision was very bad since he was born, and his parents were told that his vision would never significantly improve. However, at the age of 12, Christian went under a procedure that would change his life. Jean Bennett and her lab at the University of Pennsylvania created a gene-laced fluid. This treatment wasn’t created quickly, though. It took them 20 years of work to identify the mutation that crippled Christian’s retina, then figure out how to insert a working copy of that gene into his eye. Only three days after he went under the treatment, Christian could see properly. He was no longer blind. Now that this therapy has been proven successful, Bennett hopes that this basic form of treatment could be the basis of treatments for other forms of blindness.

 

Make malaria-carrying mosquitoes extinct.

This event could become a possibility in the future. A “gene drive” ensures that a particular gene/trait is passed on only to an individual’s offspring not through an entire population. By using genetic editing, scientists could hypothetically make the next generation of mosquitoes completely male, preventing them from reproducing, leading the malaria-carrying mosquitoes to become extinct in one fell swoop. However, it is widely debated whether it is wise to make these changes to wild mosquitoes. Therefore, this type of research “has been contained to the lab” – NYT.

 

Create a deadly version of smallpox that is resistant to vaccines and can wipe out millions of people.  This seems like a situation that we would want staying in the books. Bio-terrorism acts like the one described above don’t all involve gene editing, and many that do are possible without CRISPR. Even though that is true, it is apparent that CRISPR could be used to intentionally harm people and is a real threat to the world. Last year, “the Defense Department stated that $65 million will go to gene editing projects, including how to make Crispr safer.” – NYT

 

Back to the Movies…

 

Where Else Have We Seen Gene Editing in Movies?

Gene editing hasn’t only been introduced through ‘Rampage’. Movies such as Captain America: The First Avenger, Jurassic Park and reboots all delve into genetic editing. The Super Soldier Serum in Captain America seems to be a type of fluid that targets certain genes in Steve Roger’s body and mutates them to give him increased strength, speed, height, and agility. In the Jurassic Park movies, dinosaurs are brought back to life by extracting dinosaur blood from mosquitoes preserved in amber and filling in the gaps in the DNA from the blood with frog DNA. In the recent reboot movies, Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, scientists at the park used genetic editing to create new dinosaurs such as the Indominus Rex and the Indoraptor. These dinos are a mix of several different dinosaur genes to make them some of the most formidable animals that ever walked the Earth.

 

Finally, as you can see, even though gene editing technology looks very promising, there are risks that must be considered. By changing one gene, we might accidentally affect another. Additionally, if this technology becomes widespread, people could use it for the wrong reasons. There is also an ethical issue with genetic editing. People wonder if it’s right to change the original DNA sequence, since it was naturally established at birth. Should nature be changed? Or should it be left as it is? We have to wait and see how this technology expands, and what the world’s opinion is on it.

 

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more Science Behind the Movies!

 

 

 

 

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/04/science/crispr-gene-editing.html https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/09/blindness-treatment-medical-science-cures/ https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/explainer-how-crispr-works

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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