From tackling cancer to eradicating single-gene mutations, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool is often portrayed as the eighth wonder of the world by many. We look to CRISPR regarding how it affects us as a species, but the implications of the CRISPR Cas-9 system extend far beyond just humanity. The gene editing tool’s precision and efficacy can be implemented in manipulating the genetics of our agriculture as well as animals. It would be wrong, however, to think that this is humanity’s first attempt at the genetic manipulation of crops and pets alike—to be fair, we have been doing it since the inception of human civilization itself.
Thirty thousand years ago, our ancestors were the first individuals to manufacture genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before it was cool. Through selective breeding or artificial selection, wild wolves in East Asia were selected for docility. With more obedient animals at their side, humans from 32,000 BCE could optimize their hunter/gatherer lifestyles. After several millennia, the artificially-selected wolves began to resemble the dogs we see today. Crops weren’t spared from our genetic coercion either. In fact, humans had domesticated several forms of wheat since 7800 BCE. However, our greatest success in genetic modification through artificial selection comes from corn. Corns is derived from a wild grass known as teosinte, which only occurred when humans at the time selectively planted corn kernels that displayed desirable traits. Over time, this behavior reconciled the five-gene difference between corn and teosinte and led to the desirable crop that we use to this day.
It’s clear that humanity’s days of artificial selection aren’t behind us, as most major crops today are genetically engineered for our benefit. Rather than waiting around a few thousand years for evolution to do its work, we are now able to immediately manipulate the genetic information of organisms; an idea first executed in 1973 by Stanley Cohen, Herbert Boyer, Annie Chang, and Robert Helling to provide anti-bacterial resistance to a certain strain of bacteria. Since then, gene editing has exploded in all directions. Thanks to genetic engineering, we now dehorn cattle, produce disease-resistant pigs, and herd goats that grow longer hair, all in the name of productivity.
So how does CRISPR work? Unlike other gene editing tools in the past, CRISPR works to propagate sequences through generations at a 97% effectiveness rate. The system is naturally found in viruses, but researchers were able to manipulate the tool to essentially work as a copy and paste function for any desirable genetic information. The advent of CRISPR is revolutionizing business, with corporations taking advantage of the easy-to-use genetic engineering to even edit pets to sell. However, while CRISPR does essentially accelerate mankind’s ability to artificially select traits for organisms that we find beneficial, people like David Ishee, a Mississippi kennel operator, believe that we can reverse the negative side effects of artificial selection—particularly hyperuricemia (an abnormally high level of uric acid in the blood) in Dalmatians. While David feels that it’s a relatively simple request to utilize gene editing in the hopes of ameliorating a human-caused condition in the breed of dogs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) feels differently.
Ishee, and many others like him who wish to genetically modify animals, face the FDA’s newly drafted regulations from January 2017. While Ishee’s plan to modify the malfunctioning genes of Dalmatians and re-insert them into healthy sperm before fertilization isn’t outlawed by the FDA, its distribution is.
If Ishee manages to produce healthy Dalmatians without the disease, he would not be able to sell or distribute them for breeding purposes, according to the FDA. With that said, Ishee’s hope of spreading his movement far and wide might just be curtailed by government regulation.
The new measures by the FDA might just be a response to the emerging fear that CRISPR and other gene editing techniques can be utilized as weapons of mass destruction. While there are those who don’t intend on adhering to the regulations, hoping the new administration would absolve them entirely, there are others like Ishee who are stonewalled against even starting their projects. However, the benefits of being able to use CRISPR on animals’ DNA could be huge; just looking at dogs and cats alone, selective breeding has introduced some unfortunate side effects. We could help our pets live longer, more comfortable lives in the future. Dalmatians shouldn’t have to suffer because humans wanted a dog that had spots, and perhaps we can undo some of the damage we’ve done in the name of purebred dogs and cats. Scientists and others who want to use this technology also argue that doing this is completely different than splicing two animals’ DNA together, for example.
What about you? Do you feel this is the FDA’s responsibility?