The ease of sharing design files across the internet, together with affordable 3D printing as a service has unleashed the so-called “Maker Economy,” allowing individuals to inexpensively manufacture items that would otherwise take time and money to purchase. But this renaissance of manufacturing outside the traditional factory also allows for creating novel products that can be introduced to a worldwide market instantly and extremely cheaply through the many low-cost retailing channels available online (Amazon, Etsy, etc.). Recent advances in gene editing have extended this Maker Culture to the manipulation of the DNA in living organisms – literally work that you can do in your own home.
Recombinant DNA techniques, in which gene segments from a different molecule may be inserted in a target molecule, have brought great good commercially and medically since first demonstrated in 1972. Example include tolerance of the herbicide glyphosate in vegetables (for example Monsanto’s Roundup®), and the creation of pharmaceutical products such as human insulin.
But what if you could achieve the same “fix” to DNA directly in the cell itself without needing a different molecule from, say, a different species? The potential risk and the visceral fear of implanting genes from an animal into a person, or of modifying the DNA of a fish with DNA from another species, would simply go away.
In the past 10 years, we have achieved such a breakthrough. The very DNA of a species can now be directly manipulated in vivo. The so-called CRISPR/cas9 technique allows damaged fragments of DNA to be repaired by co-opting the cell’s existing repair processes. This gives us the power to correct genetic conditions, for example, with repair that is heritable. Further, it allows us to contemplate the unthinkable – the control of evolution itself.
But where’s the link to the Maker Economy? Look no further than this headline from Scientific American in November 2017: “Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA”
“Hack the DNA”
Today – on the internet inevitably – anyone can buy CRISPR kits which are considered easy to use for little more than $100. Where’s the revolution? Before CRISPR/cas9, the technologies were not as precise or reliable. They were time consuming and cost thousands of dollars to do just a single genetic engineering experiment. With CRISPR, it’s vastly more affordable, and the cost benefit increases significantly if you want to do multiple experiments.
How about buying a CRISPR kit to modify your own DNA? Believe it or not, the BBC published a story last year about a man who injected himself with an experimental gene therapy treatment in an attempt to cure himself of HIV. The event, part of a broader “biohacker” movement that encourages self-experimentation by scientists and amateurs alike, was live-streamed on Facebook.
In common with the existing Maker Economy, the nexus of internet distribution and low-cost technology has suddenly allowed DNA manipulation to become a new and exciting player in the overall maker scene.
There are many ethical and legal issues to grapple with. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning against the use of “do it yourself” gene therapy kits, rebuffing the nascent biohacker movement that seeks to make experimental medicines and technologies available to the masses. However the future looks increasingly bright as we evolve to the promise of the most personal of medicine – correcting the very DNA of living organisms including, maybe some day, ourselves.