At first, CRISPR seemed to be a faster and more accurate means of genetic engineering than previous approaches that had no control over the site where foreign genetic material is inserted. But it was not long before several researchers showed that CRISPR is not as accurate as the hype had claimed. Although it can reach and modify a particular site in an organism’s genome, the technique also alters other sites in the genome, with the potential to produce a multitude of "off-target effects", even erasing or rearranging long sequences outside the target site, causing changes that can cause serious disease.
One problem, as DARPA saw it, was the lack of any easy-to-use countermeasure, undo button, or antidote for CRISPR. And the more powerful gene editing becomes, the more we might need one—in case of a lab accident, or worse. As UC Berkeley put it in a 2017 press release after Doudna, with Watters’s help, claimed part of the big DARPA contract, the university intended to build tools to counter bioterrorism threats including “weapons employing CRISPR itself.”
“Can we shut off CRISPR?” asks Joseph S. Schoeniger, who leads one arm of the defense effort at Sandia National Laboratories, in Livermore, California. “That is what we are looking at. The basic concept is that this technology is coming along, [so] wouldn’t it be nice to have an ‘off’ switch.”
CRISPR in Context: The New World of Human Genetic Engineering
It’s happened. The first children genetically engineered with the powerful DNA-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 have been born to a woman in China. Their altered genes will be passed to their children, and their children’s children. Join CRISPR’s co-discoverer, microbiologist Jennifer Doudna, as we explore the perils and the promise of this powerful technology. It is not the first time human ingenuity has created something capable of doing us great good and great harm. Are we up to the challenge of guiding how CRISPR will shape the future?
PARTICIPANTS: Jennifer Doudna, Jamie Metzl, William Hurlbut