CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing technique that can target and modify DNA with groundbreaking accuracy, is both the newest darling and the newest villain of genetics research.Invented in 2012 by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, CRISPR/Cas9 has received a lot of attention this year. Not only are scientists publishing reports on the technique at breakneck speed (at 370 mentions in research publications so far this year, that's a rate of 20 papers a week), but it also seems that each piece of news that comes out about CRISPR/Cas9 is grander and juicier than the last.
In the past two weeks alone, scientists have announced that they have used the new technology to inhibit hepatitis C in human cells and to defy Mendel's laws of inheritance, which have governed the field of genetics for over a century.That's not to mention recent, highly-publicized attempts to eradicate a disease-causing gene in human embryos, which were met with limited success. The experiment, which constituted the first time scientists have reported trying to genetically engineer humans at the reproductive level, triggered concerns from an international community of scientists and ethicists. (Protein & Cell, the journal that published the results of the experiment, released a statement yesterday defending their decision to publish the controversial study as a cautionary example.)Today, the National Institutes of Health definitively stated that they will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos, citing safety and ethical concerns, as well as a current lack of medical applications that would justify the use of CRISPR/Cas9 over existing technologies.Here's the thing: CRISPR/Cas9 wasn't invented yesterday. It has existed as a gene-editing technique for three years, and scientists have been investigating CRISPR in bacteria for much longer—since the 1980s. Like an actor who guest-appeared on some TV sitcoms and then suddenly landed multiple Hollywood roles, CRISPR appeared on the world stage slowly at first, and then all at once.Since 2012, research on CRISPR/Cas9 technology has ramped up—with no obvious end in sight. Now, CRISPR/Cas9 research has reached the point where scientists are urgently considering how the technology will fit into the future of humankind.