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A Crack in Creation

Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

By Jennifer A. Doudna, Samuel H. Sternberg
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A Crack in Creation by Jennifer A. Doudna, Samuel H. Sternberg

A Crack in Creation (2017) describes everything you need to know about CRISPR, a new technique to alter the genes of living organisms. These blinks explain the scientific details of gene editing, while also discussing its medical and ethical implications.

Key idea 1 of 9

Genetic modifications can occur naturally.

For billions of years, life on Earth has evolved through random genetic variations, blossoming into an ornate display of biological diversity. This process has long been understood through the Darwinian principles of evolution, but today, scientists are turning conventional theories of evolution on their heads.

In fact, a new age of biological mastery is dawning on us, and the author is a key player in this process; she made a decisive contribution to research that enabled the rational and intentional modification of the genetic code – no evolution necessary.

The first thing to understand is that modifying the genetic code isn’t as unnatural as it might sound, and cases of natural “gene editing” do occur. For instance, in 2013, scientists at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, were perplexed by one of their patients: Kim suffered from an obscure hereditary disease called WHIM syndrome. WHIM is a painful and potentially lethal immunodeficiency disorder brought on by a single “spelling mistake” in human DNA.

Kim was diagnosed with WHIM in the 1960s, but when scientists observed her again in 2013, she was miraculously symptom-free. When the researchers took a closer look at Kim’s blood cells, they discovered that in one of her chromosomes, an incredible 35 million letters were missing in her DNA code and that the rest of her DNA was also in complete disorder.

Their only conclusion was that a cell in Kim’s body had undergone a cataclysmic event known as chromothripsis, in which a chromosome suddenly explodes, rearranging the genes it contains. The chain of events brought on by this disruption erased the misspelling in Kim’s genetic code that was causing her illness and resulted in the total abatement of her symptoms.

In other words, nature spontaneously and unintentionally “edited” Kim’s genome to the great benefit of her health. But what if such edits didn’t depend on improbable flukes or the whims of nature? What if science could reverse the often devastating effects of genetic misspellings and correct them to cure genetic disorders?

Well, such questions have been the topic of a long-standing line of scientific inquiry that you’ll learn all about in the next blink.

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