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The Rise of CRISPR
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Google Trends Search Results for CRISPR

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

– Genesis, 3:5

413px-Adam_na_restauratie Sometimes science surprises you. Many a time science seems like a slowly sluggish river, inexorable in its progress, but languid nonetheless, beset by turns and twists which delay its progress. Over the last year though I’ve been hearing people whisper in excited tones about something new, something special. And it’s about CRISPR. This may indeed be a world-turned-upside-down moment, and CRISPR may finally cash out the promise that biological science is going to result in a flowering of engineering analogous to what occurred during physics’ ‘atomic age.’

And now the excitement is percolating into the public spaces of the middle-brow media. The New York Times has now finally put CRISPR on the radar of the broader culture, in a rather long article, A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA. As they they, “read the whole thing,” but key in on this quote:

“It just completely changes the landscape,” Dr. Doudna said. Berkeley scientists used to farm out that work to specialized laboratories or companies. Now, she said, “people are able to make mice in their own labs.”

No, it complete creates a landscape. Theory becomes concrete, and the speculations and worries of bioethicists are challenged by the real present, not some vague future. Now a biologist can state, I am become life, creator of worlds. Whereas genetic engineering up to the present has been an almost artisanal act, CRISPR opens up the window into the possibilities of scalable industrialization. No doubt there will be Neo-Luddites demanding we smash the looms, but they will fail, as they always have.

How quickly has this explosion overwhelmed us? According to Google Scholar up until the year 2012 “CRISPR” was in the title of 275 papers. For 2013-2014, 328 results.

• Category: Science • Tags: Crispr 
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  1. No doubt there will be Neo-Luddites demanding we smash the looms, but they will fail, as they always have.

    Perhaps I am quibbling, though I think not. The history of firearms during the shogunate and of naval technology in China after the 14th C. suggests that at least locally, within a given polity if not civilization, Luddism can succeed. I am confident that you know more about each of these episodes than I and have merely forgotten (or chosen to overlook) them in a moment of triumphalist bravado.

  2. I read an article in one of the British papers a couple of months ago that spoke of the ease with which one could manipulate genes with CRISPR. One scientist remarked that a novice in his lab was able to use it successfully in spite of his lack of experience. Sounds like a perfect platform for creation of bioweapons by crackpots and tinkerers. Imagine a Ted Kaczynski or Aum Shinrikyo with CRISPR.

    We live in interesting times.

  3. Fred is worried about ‘crackpots and tinkerers’ gaining access to CRISPR. Not me.

    I’m currently reading a book on catastrophes by Vaclav Smil. He presents a lot of statistics to downplay a lot of threats – including volcano eruptions and terrorist attacks. It seems to me that if CRISPR is misused it will likely be by governments not individuals. The threat from individual terrorists in the US is similar to the risk of being eaten by alligators.

    It would be, I think, a whole lot easier to acquire and spread some weaponized smallpox than it would be to create your own genetics lab employing CRISPR. Smallpox already exists – albeit only in government labs. CRISPR doesn’t automatically provide you with a weapon. Better to break into a bio-weapons lab.

    A break-in is inherently easier than a breakthrough.

    Kaczynski was smart enough to pose a serious threat but he was also an environmentalist – a ‘back to nature’ kook. His bombs had wooden parts. What kind of genetics lab could be operated in his cabin without electricity or running water?

    My only inside knowledge of terrorist methods comes from reading a lot of Tom Clancy novels, but it seems to me that the only likely attempt to use genetics as a terrorist weapon is in developing some kind of infection that only attacks a single race. If sure Farrakhan and his followers would be interested. That may be possible some day but it isn’t now. And it is likely only to be doable by some government that could afford a ‘Manhattan Project’ scale effort.

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