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You Can Do Gene Editing at Home

One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in this century is a gene-editing technique called CRISPR Cas-9, which makes altering DNA fast, cheap, and easy. It's so easy, in fact, that one company is actually offering mail-order kits that let anyone do the technique at home. That's exciting — but should it also be terrifying?

Cut and Paste

CRISPR Cas-9 is a tool inspired by a bacterium's immune system. Just like your immune system, the bacterial immune system saves information about the viruses that infect it so it can better fight them the next time around. It does that by cutting apart the virus's DNA and saving a snippet of it in its own genome. When the same virus attacks later, it uses that snippet to form a customized weapon that seeks and destroys the virus.

Around 2012, scientists found a way to use that cutting, copying, and DNA-inserting process for their own devices. That's CRISPR-Cas9, and it can do anything from modifying food crops to fighting cancer in living humans.

What's in the Fridge?

We've had the technology to edit genes for a while, but the best thing about CRISPR is that it's much faster and less expensive than previous techniques. The DIY CRISPR kit by bio-hacking collective The Odin is a testament to that: for about $150, anyone can order a kit full of everything they need to edit DNA in bacteria. You simply follow the instructions, and in about 10 hours over a period of two days, you can engineer E. coli bacteria to be immune to an antibiotic called streptomycin.

How dangerous is this? According to The Odin, the E. coli bacteria are non-pathogenic, which means they can't make you sick (although German authorities beg to differ). But even if this particular kit isn't harmful, what might home scientists be able to do with CRISPR in the future? It's easy to think that bioterrorists might engineer some ultra-powerful megavirus to wipe out the human race. But as Duke University professor Charles Gersbach told Scientific American, the risk of that is pretty low. "Right now, it's difficult to imagine how it'd be dangerous in a real way. If you want to do harm, there are much easier and simpler ways than using this highly sophisticated genetic editing technique."

CRISPR-Cas9 is still in its infancy, but word is getting out about its huge potential. With a DIY kit, you can try it for yourself and better understand what makes it so groundbreaking.

For more about CRISPR-Cas9, check out the book written by its co-discoverer: "A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution" by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. The audiobook is free with a 30-day trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

We also discussed CRISPR-Cas9 with Samuel Sternberg on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

Mice with green feet demonstrate CRISPR gene editing technology

CRISPR: A Gene-Editing Superpower

Written by Ashley Hamer December 11, 2017

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