There’s a company out there called ODIN that sells mail-order do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. I used to joke about this stuff, but like a lot of stuff I used to joke about—home cannabis delivery, for example—it’s now true. The basic kit allows the home science enthusiast to modify bacteria, specifically to cause a mutation at one gene and change one particular amino acid for another. May not seem like much, but that change will allow the bacteria to survive in a media that would normally kill it. All for only $159!
People are debating whether or not this is a good thing. I live in a country that has 300 million guns in circulation, and I’m not counting the police and military. What’s a few home GMO experiments compared to that? Or compared to the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world? Let’s keep our dangers in perspective. The coolest kit (only 80 bucks) allows you to make fluorescent yeast. As a brewer, I can appreciate this one. I think it would be useful to learn how much yeast remains in my final product. Certainly a significant amount remains in suspension even if the beer looks clear, I wonder if a fluorescing species (visible under blacklight) would be detectable. The neat thing about this kit is that the user supplies the yeast, it can come from anywhere, commercial sources or wild ones.
All of this is the result of CRISPR. You may have seen the acronym (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) out there and you say (“crisper”) just like it looks. Genetics folks seem to like such names, we’ve got DNA and RNA of course, not to mention GMOs, and there’s cool stuff like SNP (“snip” or Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) and PAGE (Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis) as well. In science, things need labels. And there’s more stuff out there every day and the labels pile up!
CRISPR is something that bacteria do. It’s part of nature. Humans “discovered” it, that is, they saw something happen and gave it a name. Turns out bacteria aren’t so dumb. They get attacked by viruses all the time and they’ve evolved some defense mechanisms, kind of like our own immune system. They stash little sequences of genetic info (the CRISPR thing) in their DNA that “remind” them of when they were attacked before and what they had to do to defend themselves. Usually they made some protein that cleaved up the attacking viral DNA, so the little sequences encode for that.
Turns out the human lab geniuses figured out how to copy the bacterial technique. Nature has been around longer than mere humans, it pays to study what other organisms do to survive. They’ve been doing some things right for some time now, and we are very recent interlopers on the planet by comparison, so studying bacteria can teach us a lot.
Of course the primary motivation for this research is medical. Humans would like to be able to treat genetic diseases at the source. CRISPR makes lab work quicker and cheaper, thus you may see a lot of hollering about how we’ll use the new technology to cure us all of what ails us. Naturally you can use the techniques on plants, and we’ll get some more hollering about how we’ll feed the world with the amazing new plants we can create. Like all technology, hype comes along for the ride.
There will be all the other hollering about playing god, too. Messing with stuff that shouldn’t be messed with. Dr. Frankenstein in a corporate lab re-designing life. I figure DNA is about as natural and organic a substance as anyone could want and I’m a natural, organic kind of guy so I don’t worry about such things. Much. People are certainly capable of doing great harm to each other and to all the other living things, of that I’ve no doubt. But playing with live ammo is what we do. The cave-people harnessed fire, and that’s scary stuff. We still burn our buildings down on a regular basis, and we’ve been doing this fire thing for a long time! We buzz around in combustion-engine metal behemoths with tanks of explosive liquid under our asses, on sea, land, and air, all the goddamn time, and hardly take notice any more.
I don’t know if we’ll get anything useful from the bio-hackers and others who use the kits. There’s another one where you get to genetically modify frogs. Seriously. I’m not sure what you get, and they do say it’s a “beta” version, so I doubt you can do much damage. But it seems a wee bit hinky. The kit comes with “cages” and “Benzocaine anesthetic.” I’m starting to feel sorry for the frogs. I guess I’m OK with bacteria and yeast on my lab table and I’m not yet ready for creatures with eyes and legs.
But it’s coming. Cloning was all the rage a while back and I’ve always figured it would make a big comeback with pets. Little Fido died? No problem, we saved some of his DNA and we can grow a new one. As soon as some rich celebrity gets his or her beloved barker back from the dead everyone will want to do it.
Same with medical advances. If some blowhard anti-technology Senator gets his grandkid cured of a terrible disease you know he’ll change his tune about bio-engineering and so will the rest of us. Who’s going to argue with saving little Jimmy?
We put all sorts of scary genetic material into our bodies. How about kombucha? Do you know where that fungus came from? Or what organisms it is made of? Certainly not all of them. No one does. Same goes for sourdough bread! Brewers in Belgium open the roofs of the brewhouses and let wild yeast and bacteria infect their beers. They do this on purpose, for flavor. If some day there’s a CRISPR in my crisper I figure it can’t be any worse than that.