Ten Weird Ways Scientists Are Changing the World With Gene Editing

Gene editing is changing every area of biological science, including agriculture. CRISPR recently helped scientists grow better grapes that resist moldy invaders. Daniel Becerril/REUTERS

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has captured the public's imagination. As this powerful technology becomes even more popular, it has also incited plenty of fears about what the future may bring. But a closer look at recent milestones and studies demonstrate the future of gene editing is already happening right now.

This experimental technique, known as CRISPR (pronounced "crisper") for short, utilizes snippets of bacteria as a pair of "molecular scissors." The technology allows scientists to selectively modify DNA segments, disable or alter genes or correct mutations in the genome of any living organism. In a controversial landmark study published earlier this month in Nature, scientists eliminated a genetic abnormality in a human embryo.

Gene editing is proving to be a nimble and versatile technology for redesigning the world. This area of research is certain to change nearly every field of biological sciences—including agriculture, medicine and zoology—and touch every aspect of our lives. Here are 10 ways scientists have already used CRISPR gene editing to do what once seemed impossible.

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Here's how CRISPR-Cas9 works. REUTERS
  1. A potential cure for diabetes. Scientists created genetically modified skin grafts to protect lab mice from diabetes. The experiment could help researchers identify a suitable substitute for insulin.
  2. Eliminated disease from mosquitoes. In one experiment, researchers bred mosquitos that are resistant to the parasite that causes malaria.
  3. Created a new type of seafood. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a genetically modified salmon, known as AquaAdvantage salmon. Gene editing gave the fish the taste and texture of Chinook salmon and the efficient, rapid growth of ocean pout. Canadians are already eating them.
  4. Super-strength animals. By deleting the relevant gene, scientists in China bred goats with more muscle (for meat) and hair (for wool).
  5. Several changes to pigs. Scientists edited out all traces of porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV), which brings us one step closer to creating a sustainable organ supply for transplant patients. Another new strain of pigs, known as Enviropigs produces manure that is low in phosphorus. Scientists can also now cut off the gene responsible for growth hormone in the animals, which could make micropigs the next pet.
  6. Treated cancer. CRISPR has been used in a number pilot studies in China to treat aggressive cancers. In a study of head and neck cancer, scientists tweaked genetic mutations in a patient's blood, and then injected the blood back into the patient in order to suppress tumor growth.
  7. Bolster the wine supply. At Rutgers University, researchers developed a way to cultivate grapes that can resist a type of mildew that can spoil the crop.
  8. Make antisocial ants. Ants rely on their keen sense of smell to communicate. When scientists edited out the gene responsible for their sense of smell, the bugs' behaviors changed. The researchers found their antennae and brain circuits didn't fully develop. Productivity in the colony, such as food foraging, also went down dramatically because the bugs were unable to work together effectively.
  9. Eliminate cattle dehorning. The practice of removing the horns from cattle is especially painful to the animal. It's also costly and time-consuming for farmers. Some scientists used CRISPR to breed cows that don't have horns.
  10. Disable HIV. Though not yet studied in humans, scientists used gene editing to excise the HIV virus from the genomes of mice.