If you could alter your DNA profile with gene-hacking technology to erase your risk of disease, or slow down ageing, how far would you go to change your body in pursuit of biological perfection?
Many humans are living with heightened personal dissatisfaction and the constant need to better themselves physically. From simple things like day-to-day grooming and monthly appointments at the salon to achieving a completely new look, to more severe measures like plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures, these are all things which are becoming norms in the 21st century.
It has been the ultimate goal of scientists and biomedical engineers to alter the genome of living cells in a way that will enhance our bodies to do things it originally could not do. It finally seems possible, thanks to one of the latest scientific findings.
To put it simply, yes, you can hack your own DNA.
What is CRISPR?
In 2012, a method of gene editing was discovered that set us on the path of a genetic revolution. It is called CRISPR Cas9.
This is a faster, cheaper and more accurate means of editing the genetic code.
CRISPR is used to target specifically faulty genes. It can help in disabling disease-causing genes.
It has immense applications in treating human disease and in agriculture.
CRISPR stands for Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and they are specialised stretches of DNA. They are the hallmark of a bacterial defence system, that is the foundation for the CRISPER Cas9 genome editing technology.
Think of the protein Cas9 as a pair of scissors. The Cas9 scissors cut the DNA where we intend, enabling us to change DNA sequences by adding, removing or altering the cell to insert new genes at particular locations, which in turn, modifies gene function.
How does it work?
CRISPR technology stems from the natural defence mechanisms of bacteria which use CRISPR Cas9 to obstruct attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies.
This is done by essentially breaking up and destroying the DNA of a foreign invader which might be harmful. When these components are transferred into other, more complex, organisms, it makes room for the manipulation or ‘editing’ of genes.
How can CRISPR benefit us?
CRISPR is predicted to bring about significant advancements, such as:
- Slowing down ageing
- Feeding the world
- Treating diseases like Alzheimer’s and HIV
- Creating organ donors
It is seen as revolutionary due to its low cost compared to other available alternatives. It has the ability to improve the livelihood of humans drastically.
However, as beneficial as it may sound, ethical concerns have also been expressed by many who know about this.
Currently, most of the altering abilities linked to genome editing are exclusive to somatic cells, which are cells other than the reproductive cells. These can only affect particular tissues and cannot be passed on from one generation to the next.
However, if these changes were to be made in the genes within reproductive cells or directly in an embryo, they might get passed to future generations.
Ethical questions have been raised about whether it is acceptable to enhance normal human traits such as height, eye colour or even intelligence in new-borns, essentially, creating “designer babies”.
There is also a risk that this technology could be fatal due to off-target mutations possibly resulting in cell death or transformation.
For this reason, embryo genome editing is illegal in many countries and is also strongly rejected by the medical research community.
However, CRISPR Cas9 has been tested on embryos before.
3 years ago, in China, 86 non-viable human embryos were injected with CRISPR Cas9, aiming to cure the inherited blood disorder β-thalassemia. Only 33% of samples were successful, but some of those did incur complications such as off-target mutations.
A year after that, researchers at Guangzhou Medical University went further and attempted to correct potential disease-causing mutations by injecting a genetic mutation which might prevent HIV.
A report in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics stated that they successfully inserted the mutated gene in four out of 26 embryos. However, not all mutations were successful.
These experiments shocked the world. Although everyone knew about gene-editing in theory, no one had ever tested it out.
Scientists questioned why Chinese researchers continued testing CRISPR Cas9 on human embryos despite the number of failures.
They believe that although CRISPR is capable of great precision, it is not ready to be tested on human embryos.
As CRISPR Cas9 is still very new, people are not ready to fully accept and trust this gene-editing technology just yet.
Ronald Green of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a bioethicist, said he did not foresee CRISPR Cas9 being used extensively in the next two decades but he agreed that it will eventually take shape.
“It is unavoidably in our future and I believe that it will become one of the central foci of our social debates later in this century and in the century beyond,” Green said.
This means that within the next few decades, there is a high possibility of every new born child to have his or her genes sequenced in a desired manner.
What is even more absurd is that people are attempting this on their own with DIY gene hacking. Given the equipment’s affordability and prevalence of knowledge in gene-editing techniques, citizen scientists are attempting to re-engineer their DNA in unthinkable ways.
36-year-old Josiah Zayner, a biohacker, was the first person to use CRISPR to modify his own genes. He injected his arm with DNA and other chemicals, claiming he could increase his muscle mass during a biotech conference last October.
The former NASA biochemist regrets this stunt as he believes it may have influenced newer, more reckless experiments.
“What it’s turned into now, people view it as a way to get press and get publicity and get famous. And people are going to get hurt,” he said in an interview.
Zayner’s words proved to be true when Aaron Traywick, 28-year-old CEO of an American biohacking company was found dead on 29 April 2018, barely 3 months after he injected himself with an unregulated herpes treatment.
Although the safety of such gene altering technology is still up for question, it is possible to hack your genes using entirely natural methods in the field of epigenetics.
What is Epigenetics?
You are hacking your DNA right now.
Epigenetics studies changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. It is basically information imposed on top of the genetics.
Any external stimulus that can be detected by the body could potentially cause epigenetic modifications.
Factors like plastic usage, exercising habits and childhood abuse can trigger an epigenetic modification.
With the discovery of game-changing technology in the field of gene alteration, it is clear that hacking your genes is very much possible in the 21st century. With development in this area of biomedical engineering, we could see incredible advancements in the near future.