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A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the…

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control…

by Jennifer A. Doudna

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The authors tell the story of the discovery of the gene editing technology called called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) (of DNA), current experimental results, future potential applications, and finally ethical and social questions regarding use of the same. The book is well written, and easily accessible to the general public, delving deep enough into the technical side without being overwhelming. A few interesting facts: The human genome has a DNA code length of 3.2 billion, similar to a mouse, but the salamander is ten time larger, and some plants 100 times larger; The conversion of DNA to RNA is called "transcription," while RNA to Protein is called "translation." Several start-ups have resulted from CRISPR, including Editas Medicine, CRISPR Therapeutics, and Intellia Therapeutics. CRISPR has been used to breed dog-sized "micropigs," at the Beijing Genomics Institute in China, which are sold as pets. It is being used by Church at Harvard to explore the possibilty of recreating the wooly mammoth by modifying elephant DNA, so called de-extinction. Correction of genetic defects in embryo is another application. (Aside: A procedure called "Preimplantation genetic diagnosis" is already in use for preselecting viable embryos and avoiding genetic problems. It can be used to preselect the sex of a child, but is illegal in many countries.) In medicne, the CRISPR technology can be used more readily to edit genetic errors in easily accessible cells (such as the blood stream - leukemia, or bone marrow), but reaching all the cells of other tissues is challenging; however, there are promising techniques under study, such as modifying a virus as a CRISPR carrier. CRISPR is best applied to germ cells (transmitted to offspring) than somatic cells (all the other cells ). The applications to prevent genetic disease and cure certain cancers are the most exciting. ( )
  eclecticism | Nov 28, 2017 |
I thought this was a comprehensive and thoroughly explained background on CRISPR and it's uses, as well as their ethical implications. However, as a science teacher, many of the background explanations on DNA and genetics were lengthy and unnecessary. Otherwise an interesting read on an issue that everyone should be aware of. ( )
  effulgent7 | Jul 21, 2017 |

A CRACK IN CREATION is written in the voice of the main author, Jennifer A. Doudna, who is one of the lead researchers into the CRISPR gene editing techniques. The co-author, Samuel H. Sternberg, also a leading expert in the field, is literarily in the background.

Though gene manipulation and the editing of DNA is not relatively new technology, the CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) techniques are notable for being inexpensive and incredibly accurate at editing genomes. If you Google "CRISPR" you will retrieve ad based links to companies that are already selling inexpensive CRISPR editing kits and customized sgRNA (single guide RNA) which is used to make specific modifications.

The first part of the book, "The Tool," is a fairly dry explanation of the development and function of CRISPR. If anything, the author may suffer from being too familiar with the topic leading to this being the least accessible part of the book. Scientific dilettantes (like myself) should soldier through the array of genetic terminology and themes, but the reward is a deeper understanding of the actual technology. Dr. Doudna could benefit from expanding on the personal aspects and interactions with other players in the field. There are hints of a deeper and more fascinating human story in this first part.

It is the second part of the book, "The Task," that the authors use to explore the potential of CRISPR, and the related ethical issues that, in the past, were more theoretical. Earlier genome editing techniques have required more extensive laboratory infrastructure and were thus self-limiting in their impacts (though the impact of genetic manipulation is not trifling). Dr. Doudna and Dr. Sternberg emphasize the ethical questions particularly surrounding the editing of the germline, i.e., human embryos. Humans have always manipulated their environment, and sometimes to our own detriment, e.g., global climate change. With CRISPR, the authors posit we have the atomic bomb of gene editing tools, and that we should approach ethical concerns about research in the same manner. As with nuclear energy, the potential benefits are astounding. As with nuclear energy, the potential threat is also astounding.

The title of this review, "The advent of Khan Noonien Singh," refers to the iconic character from the Star Trek universe, who is the leader of a genetically manipulated crew of super humans. The authors have convinced me that creation of designer humans, such as Khan, is no longer just possible but probable. In one section of the book they discuss being approached by a biotech firm for assistance in creating embryos that are designed to avoid known genetic diseases. Though prophylactic in nature, they make the case that it is obvious that editing the genome for desirable traits (strength, intelligence, gender) involves the same inexpensive CRISPR techniques.

The call in this book is for more involvement by the world community beyond the sphere of the scientific experts. There are no easy answers, and the second part of the book involves raising the questions and the importance of involving a wider universe of stakeholders. Stakeholders = human beings.

This book easily stands alongside The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James Watson.

The NOTES section at the end is one of the best I've seen. Not only does it give the page number of the footnote and citation to more in depth information, it also includes a snippet of the phrase which originally references the note. E.g., Page 46. . . . the institute had over a thousand employees producing tons of phages per year: Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2011).

This is a must read. Period.
1 vote fugitive | May 1, 2017 |
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Some of the greatest benefactors of our species are not the recognized do-gooders but those paid to satisfy their curiosity: the scientists. Such pure and unsullied inquiry has yielded thousands of valuable byproducts, including antibiotics, vaccinations, X-rays and insulin therapy.

Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s “A Crack in Creation” describes another fortuitous discovery, a method that promises to revolutionize biotechnology by allowing us to change nearly any gene in any way in any species. The method is called CRISPR, pronounced like the useless compartment in your fridge. In terms of scientific impact, CRISPR is right up there beside the double helix (1953); the ability, developed in the 1970s, to determine the sequence of DNA segments; and the polymerase chain reaction, a 1980s invention that allows us to amplify specified sections of DNA. All three achievements were recognized with Nobel Prizes. CRISPR — developed largely by Doudna and her French colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier — also has a strong whiff of Nobel about it, for its medical and practical implications are immense.

The story of CRISPR is told with refreshing first-person directness in this book.
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Two Berkeley scientists explore the potential of a revolutionary genetics technology capable of easily and affordably manipulating DNA in human embryos to prevent specific diseases, addressing key concerns about related ethical and societal repercussions.… (more)

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