DIY gene editing
Kian Sadeghi has postponed homework assignments, sports practice and all the other demands of being a 17-year-old high-school junior for today. On a Saturday afternoon, he is in a lab learning how to use Crispr-Cas9, a gene-editing technique that has electrified scientists around the world—and sparked a widespread debate about its use.
Scientific breakthroughs often raise big ethical questions. Moral concerns around the 1996 cloning of Dolly the sheep or the 2000 announcement of a rough draft of the human genome still reverberate today. The public benefits from scientific advances, particularly in improving health. But some scientists say the power to alter the DNA of plants, animals or people, and the profound impact such changes may have on individuals and society, merits public discussion.
Crispr gene editing by amateurs and hobbyists brings an unusual set of challenges. Crispr-Cas9 is easier, faster and cheaper than previous gene-editing techniques. While that raises the prospect of people with nefarious intent gaining access, the greater concern with amateur enthusiasts is that someone might make a seemingly innocuous gene edit in a fungus, insect or plant that turns out to wreak havoc on the environment.
“The question is, can we rely on individuals to conduct their experiments in an ethical and appropriately safe way?” says Maxwell Mehlman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, who is working with do-it-yourself scientists to develop DIY Crispr ethical guidelines. “The jury is out,” he says. “Crispr is too new. We have to wait and see.”
There are those who believe that given the importance of the ethical debate, the more people know about Crispr—including hands-on experience with it—the better. A do-it-yourself Crispr kit with enough material to perform five experiments gene-editing the bacteria included in the package is available online for $150. Genspace, the Brooklyn, N.Y., community lab where Mr. Sadeghi is learning how to use Crispr to edit a gene in brewer’s yeast, charges $400 for four intensive sessions. More than 80 people have taken the classes since the lab started offering them last year.
Both the kit and the lab allow people to work only on harmless organisms. And Genspace is an example of the kind of educational program that many researchers are racing to develop—not just explaining how to use the technology but also discussing when and how it should be used.
That discussion continues to bubble at the highest levels, as scientists wrestle with what limits should be imposed on Crispr inside their labs. A scientific advisory committee set up by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a report this month that supports human genome editing to try to treat and prevent diseases, but says more public discussion is needed for other uses, such as editing genes in eggs, sperm or embryos, which could be passed on to future offspring.
At the classroom level, Dana Waring Bateman, co-founder and education director at Harvard University’s Personal Genetics Education Project, helped create a Crispr lesson for high-school teachers. The lesson doesn’t involve doing an experiment. Rather, it covers the history of Crispr and gene editing, some of the key findings, and the moral questions Crispr raises.
Ms. Bateman, who visits schools to discuss the ethics of gene editing, says she asked a group of seventh-grade students whether Crispr should be deployed to bring extinct animals back to life. After a spirited discussion, one student asked, “How can we decide if we aren’t sure what will happen?” Ms. Bateman replied that such questions will increasingly be part of public debate, and that everyone, including 12-year-olds, can benefit from learning about Crispr.
At Genspace, Ellen Jorgensen, a molecular biologist and one of the lab’s founders, tells people in the workshop before they get started that working on a gene edit can help them better understand how to use Crispr, and when they shouldn’t. The lab takes safety precautions: Participants don’t work with pathogens, and as a general rule, they aren’t allowed to take genetically modified organisms or hazardous chemicals out of the lab. A small committee reviews requests by Genspace members who propose projects, and turns down those it considers ill-conceived or potentially dangerous.
In the workshop, if the participants correctly edit the gene in brewer’s yeast, the cells will turn red. In between the prep work, the classmates swap stories on why they are there. Many have personal Crispr projects in mind and want to learn the technique.
Kevin Wallenstein, a chemical engineer, takes a two-hour train ride to the lab from his home in Princeton, N.J. Crispr is a hobby for him, he says. He wants to eventually use it to edit a gene in an edible fruit that he prefers not to name, to restore it to its historical color. “I always wondered what it would look like,” he says.
At the workshop, Mr. Wallenstein shares his Crispr goal with Will Shindel, Genspace’s lab director. Mr. Shindel is enthusiastic; he has started his own Crispr project, a longtime dream to make a spicy tomato. Both men say they aren’t looking to commercialize their ideas—but they would like to eat what they create someday, if they get permission from the lab. “I’m doing it for fun,” Mr. Shindel says.
When Mr. Sadeghi first wanted to try Crispr, the teenager emailed 20 scientists asking if they would be willing to let him learn Crispr in their labs. Most didn’t respond; those that did turned him down. So he did a Google search and stumbled upon Genspace. When he shared the lead with his science teacher at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, Essy Levy Sefchovich, she agreed to take the course with him.
When Mr. Shindel describes the steps of the experiment, Ms. Sefchovich takes notes. She is hoping to create a modified version of the yeast experiment so all her students can try Crispr in class.
Later, Mr. Sadeghi recounts that the hardest part of the day was handling the micropipette, the lab tool he used to mix small amounts of liquid. He says he still feels clumsy. Ms. Sefchovich reassures him he’ll get the hang of it; he just needs to practice.
“It’s like driving,” she tells him. “You learn the right feel.” Mr. Sadeghi doesn’t have his driver’s license yet. He figures he’ll do Crispr first.