When you hear the phrase genome engineering, your mind might instinctively go to a place of science fiction, conjuring up images of augmented superhumans like Khan from Star Trek. You might think of real-life history, such as the horrors of the eugenics movement. Or you might gravitate toward the present-day debates over ideas such as cloning and GMOs. Genome engineering is a wide-ranging topic encompassing many schools of thought, and it has continually fascinated scientists and creatives alike. Yet despite this, it is also often something that many people know very little about and often fear due to misconceptions and generalizations.
Over the past few years, there has been something of a renaissance in genome engineering technology and research, which has led to increased awareness and renewed interest from the public. At the forefront of this are organizations such as the Genome Writers Guild (GWG), a “group of stakeholders interested in promoting the safe, effective and ethical use of gene delivery and gene editing technologies for society.” While the GWG hopes to promote ethical research into genome engineering technology, it is also making a concerted effort to engage the public—challenging people’s misconceptions and building a greater understanding of the benefits that these technologies can present to our world.
From July 19 through July 21, 2018, the GWG is hosting its second annual professional conference at the University of Minnesota. On the first day of the conference, the group will open up to the public from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. at the McNamara Alumni Center for an event dubbed the Science Café, in which scientists, professors, and artists will deliver short talks and encourage questions and discussions on current theories and research related to genome engineering.
Dr. David Largaespada, president and cofounder of the Genome Writers Guild, hopes this event will engage individuals—particularly young people—by piquing curiosity and cultivating a sense of excitement for the field. “Our mission is to engage the public, effectively describe new and ongoing genome engineering technologies, listen to concerns, and help drive policy,” he explained to Twin Cities Geek.
According to Largaespada, there is a rich history behind genome engineering that has continued to drive the field forward: “The field is old, and many, many thousands of people have contributed to it,” he says. “This is especially true for the myriad ways by which one can introduce new genes into cells, plants, and animals. Dr. Perry Hackett, PhD, at the University of Minnesota developed the first vertebrate active transposon called Sleeping Beauty, which allows super-efficient gene delivery. The ability to efficiently alter specific gene sequences in living cells is more recent.”
As this technology progresses, Largaespada and others in the field are optimistic that the benefits will bring about a better future for us all. He notes that it will mean “more effective and safer therapies are available for debilitating and life-threatening diseases, including genetic diseases and cancer. It means better crops which are more nutritious, better for the environment, and useful for more individuals. It means healthier food animals that suffer less during production. It means providing new sources of green energy and new materials.”
One particular aspect of the field that has been making headlines in recent years is CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), the group of DNA sequences that form the basis of the technology CRISPR/Cas9, which has the capability to specifically alter genes within organisms. As Largaespada explains, CRISPR “is a molecular mechanism used by bacteria for a defense against viruses, called bacteriophage, that infect them.”
Ultimately, CRISPR’s uses in genome engineering were noticed by scientists, and it has been effectively “engineered to work as a tool in many cell types, including human cells, so that one can introduce a DNA nick or break at any position along the chromosome of a cell,” Largaespada says. “These nicks or breaks can be converted to a small deletion to inactivate a gene, or to any desired sequence for other purposes, such as giving the gene a new function. CRISPR can be used for other things also, such as reversibly turning a specific gene on or off. This tool is a huge boon to research since it gives us a chance to more easily do what took a great deal more time in the past. The applied research is even more exciting since CRISPR provides a way to make genetic modifications to useful plants and animals.”
While the CRISPR/Cas9 technology has shown immense potential—it has arguably revolutionized the field and paved the way for a great deal of progress—the use of this tool has also been met with some controversy. An ongoing intellectual property dispute has led to court cases over legal mistakes in the initial patenting of CRISPR technology since 2016, and the low cost of producing and distributing this technology has inadvertently led to a market of mail-order gene editing kits giving way to “garage scientists” and DIY-inspired genome editing projects that many experts argue may pose legitimate risks to society. On top of that, some scientists have challenged the effectiveness and safety of the technology as a whole. A study published in Nature last year argued that the use of CRISPR may be associated with genetic unexpected mutations, but this was subsequently criticized and then challenged in another study and ultimately retracted from the journal altogether. A more recent study in the journal Nature Biotechnology has argued that cells edited through CRISPR technology struggle to repair themselves after the process, thus causing significant genetic damage.
Dr. Largaespada and his colleagues understand and recognize the validity of these concerns but also hope that these setbacks will not stand in the way of all of the positive developments that have been coming out of the field. Largaespada believes that these issues are “still important to keep talking about” and hopes to continue having “an ongoing dialog with all stakeholders including the general public.” Effectively, the members of the Genome Writers Guild believe that it is continued engagement, discussion, and a greater general understanding of the concepts and technologies that will help the field progress meaningfully. This is why they hope to see a large turnout at their conference this weekend and especially at the public Science Café event—for which you can register here.