Siddharth Mukherjee, the author of the Putlizer Prize, has a tendency to take complex topics and keep them pretty relevant. “Three destabilizing ideas by the twentieth century Ricochet,” he wrote in The Gene: An Intimate History, “divided into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene.” The Industrial Revolution was the revolution of the atom, the physical things — steam power, spinning looms, the internal combustion engine. Information technology and the internet revolution have been manipulated to make byte, 0s and 1s magic. The next revolution is the gene that made up our DNA, which also shapes life.
As the coronavirus pandemic surrounds us, we are increasingly struggling with the tools that the genetic revolution has given us. The Danish botanist Wilhelm Johansen used the term ‘gene’ to construct the basic work done by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel on natural evolution and genetic selection. Darwin and Wallace went on to describe the best genes and how their carriers are. Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin provided the next big height by understanding the double-helix structure of DNA and solving the mystery of how it reflects. Bytes are the 0s and 1s arrays, the arrays of four proteins represented by the genes A, C, T, and G alphabet. An Epochal Moment in the Genetic Revolution by Frederick Sanger, winner of two Nobel Prizes, the sequence of acetyls of proteins in the late 20th century and then DNA.
The 21st century has given us another tectonic breakthrough, named after Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier CRISPR / Cas9, MIT’s Dr. Eric Lander said, “may be the scientific breakthrough of this century. CRISPR means clustered regular interspersed short polyndromic repeats; COS 9 is for CRISPR-associated endonucleases. Simply put, CRISPR can detect specific DNA sequences in our genes, and accurately snip the targeted sequence using the COS 9 cutting enzyme. Even more amazing: by filling our cut-off area with our genetic sequence, we fill it with new DNA sequences to induce the expression of any desired trait.
For example, we can use CRISPR to modify and stop one of the genes that cause sickle-cell anemia, or to cure it or to increase insulin production, similar to diabetes. The good part is that this technology is very easy and cheap to use; So much so that DIY CRISPR kits are available from the internet. The ability to bioengineer a wide variety of cancers, malaria and HIV, new crops and plants can be suddenly realized.
The biological origin of CRISPR is fascinating, and our old friends, viruses also play their part here. We know that viruses cannot live on their own, but by capturing a cell, it works to replicate itself until its machinery is manipulated. Bacteria were among the earliest denizens on our planet, and have been battling viruses for centuries. Some bacteria have developed a way to fight back, using DNA-cutting proteins to shred any viral genes that float around. Bacteria incorporate small fragments of viral DNA into their own genes, so that similar ones can be quickly identified in the future. They use a clever idea to keep this genetic memory alive, by emptying each piece of viral DNA in the middle with repetitive polyndromic sequences. These have helped memorize the genetic code from virus invaders in the past, and the next time the virus is re – ited reviewed, the bacteria will arm the CAS9 protein with a copy of this sequence and, like the ‘molecular killer’, the protein will go out and the scissors will fit anything that fits.
But if we are to change the basic building blocks of life, there must be a darker side. If we can modify the undesirable features, we can not use it to create humans from ‘designer babies’ from scratch with perfect health, teeth and desired colors. Surprisingly, a Chinese geneticist has already sought a round of criticism from the scientific community. Technology is not perfect. Sometimes the wrong sites are trimmed, there are risks of setting up unintended mutations. But, there is a dark side to every new technology.
Mukherjee called the atom-bit-genetic trinity unequal. Undoubtedly, the bit revolution is much bigger than the atom, and the genetic revolution looks even bigger, where we try to change the basis of our own biology. Now we have the right tool for that – CRISPR Cas9.
Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisper’ and the founder of Digital Matters