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Genome engineering technologies have revolutionized genetics, biotechnology, and medical research. We may soon be able to alter not just domesticated species, but entire wild populations and ecosystems. Why, when and how might we use these novel methods to reshape our environment?
The story begins with a new technology that has made the precise editing of genes in many different organisms much easier than ever before. The so-called “CRISPR” system naturally protects bacteria from viruses by storing fragments of viral DNA sequence and cutting any sequences that exactly match the fragment. By changing the fragments and delivering the altered system into other organisms, we can cut any given gene. If we also supply a DNA sequence that the cell can use to repair the damage, it will incorporate this new DNA, precisely editing the genome. When performed in the cells that give rise to eggs or sperm, these changes will be inherited by future generations. Because most altered traits don’t improve and may even decrease the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce, they generally can’t spread through wild populations.