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Gene editing

It becomes easier to grasp if when we see the term “gene editing” we think “word processing for genes.” We’re all familiar with word processing software. It allows you to create a document, and then within it, to delete a letter, add a letter, delete or add words, sentences, paragraphs… you can cut and paste text chunks of various sizes and move them around; you can even cut and paste whole chapters or volumes from one document, or one computer, to another, and much more.

Gene editing is similar.  As with word processing there are a variety of tools, though the names are more exotic, and they have their own alphabet soup of acronyms:  zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs), meganucleases, transcription activator like effector nucleases (TALENS), oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis (ODM), and the technique of the moment, clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR.

Each of these gene editing tools is fascinating in its own right, with a unique evolutionary history and mode of action. But far and away the most talked about, the most exciting, and the most powerful of these is CRISPR. First discovered by Japanese researchers in 1987, for years it remained a curious mystery that drew many researchers to try and figure out what it is and how it works. After a lot of brilliant detective work by different researchers around the world a sensible picture emerged: CRISPR is an adaptive immune response that bacteria use to defend against their number one threat, an attack by a virus.

When a virus attacks a bacterium, the bacterium grabs a snippet of the virus’ DNA (the mugshot) and adds it to the catalog of “clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats” the bacterium maintains in its DNA, like a post office wall full of mug shots.

To determine whether gene edited plants and animals are “GMOs” it helps to review what a “GMO” is, and is not. The initials stand for “genetically modified organism” and in common usage it is defined, according to the World Health Organization, “as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

As ITIF and others have noted elsewhere, this definition is problematic on multiple levels. On its face, it is scientifically indefensible: every living thing on earth is “genetically modified” in the time honored meaning of the words as they have been in common usage since Bateson coined the term “genetics” in 1905. Indeed, life is all about “descent with modification,” the modifications are genetic, and they are the reason we are all something other than primordial slime. Read the full story on  The Source as indicated on the top of the page. 


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