Recently, article called “CRISPR gene editing can cause hundreds of unintended mutations” went viral in the media.
I read it quickly and posted a tweet more as a personal note, thinking at the time, “Well, there are benefits, but there are dangers, but that is no reason to stop, and, I should write about it.”
If you know a bit about computer programming, you can easily compare DNA code with computer source code. Programming language contains a series of lines that will execute one after the other in a sequence. If you want to change functionality, you just need to find the appropriate line of code and replace it with something else.
Now, code often repeats. In order to identify your particular source code segment just by a search, it is necessary to find a unique block of code that is responsible for the functionality that needs to be replaced. But, whoever is making those changes must be careful about the side effects as, by amending one block of code, it is possible — and frequently happens — to spoil other functionalities.
Imagine that there are two lights, red and yellow, on the fridge, and they both need 12V to work. Someone may decide to replace the yellow light by replacing it with one that needs a lower voltage. Knowing that 12V will burn the light, we may decide to change the power module, decreasing power to 4.5V, but, as soon as that is done, the same change will affect both lights, and the red light will stop working, as it won’t have enough power.
So, before changing anything, it is necessary to learn and look for any dependent functionalities that may be affected by changing this particular small block of code. This will require an inquisitive and thorough mind, enough to find all dependencies and yet satisfy all change requirements.
After reading above article one of my thought was, “OK, that needs fixing,” and probably there will be better systems to identify a buggy “line,” but it is not an impossible task, and it is something that can be solved.
However, the damage was already done. Luckily, my tweet hasn’t gone far, but other people’s tweets did.
In my mind, saying there will be danger only means that there is just one more obstacle that we need to overcome. But, not everyone thinks the same way.
The thing I did not know at the time is that, after reading the news, investors started pulling their money from CRISPR research, creating massive damage to the entire field, which is still — although promising — in the early stage of development.
A few days later, there was an article basically disproving what was said in the previous one: “Gene-Editing Companies Hit Back at Paper That Criticized CRISPR”
I would like to address two things:
Investors are not coders or geneticists and they do not know much about either subject. Investors just have a rough sense what kind of applications will make money in the future. That being said, it is kind of strange that we do not have investment funds that will back failures.
When I say “failure,” I mean more in the sense of attempts, regardless of outcome — especially if there are some indications that something revolutionary may come out of it.
CRISPR/CAS9 truly has that potential and can be a game-changer for humanity: from fighting our health problems all the way to solving global warming (modifying plants to sequester CO2 faster). In that sense, I admire those wealthy people that have the attitude, “I just wanted to see if this is possible, and I will spend a great portion of my personal money to test my premise.”
Secondly, news media, including social networks, can have a huge impact on people’s decisions, so, maybe, next time you start tweeting something that will catch fire, maybe you should first cool a bit, as viral fame can also mean massive, detrimental effects on other people’s lives and their lifelong research. You never know what investor, Member of Parliament, or president is reading your tweets. So, that same tweet can loop back to bite you.
At the end, you can say “Yeah, yeah, you say that now”. If you double-check, you will find the cryptic letters “R4 MS PF”, which is not as good as #covfefe but has a simpler meaning: “Reminder for myself. Post future.”
So, yes, this is that future post.