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Health

10 ways CRISPR (gene-editing) can fight poverty

Have you heard of CRISPR? Maybe you’ve heard the full term: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats--or maybe not.

If you haven’t, I’m sure you’ll start hearing the snack-sounding acronym soon. It’s some revolutionary stuff. Equal parts thrilling and terrifying, it’s the most powerful genome editing tool ever discovered.

Basically, CRISPR allows someone to edit an organism’s DNA, to turn off or on certain traits and to introduce new traits entirely.

In the past, editing DNA was incredibly difficult, time consuming and imprecise.

CRISPR is basically the opposite: cheap, easy to use and precise.

It’s made up of a “guide” RNA that can locate a specific bit of DNA and a scalpel-like enzyme called “CAS9” to precisely cut that bit out. It can also be equipped with a replacement bit of DNA to replace what was cut out.   

There’s been a flurry of CRISPR research in the past few years as the scientific community tries to get a grip on the limits of this method--which seem endless--and also refine their understanding of how it can and should be used.  

This kind of science seems like science fiction, but it could impact the lives of people around the world.

Here are some ways that CRISPR could impact poverty in the years to come:

Infectious diseases

Many infectious diseases take a roundabout course before they get to humans. Lyme disease, for instance, comes from a bacteria that is picked up by a tick after it (for the most part) lands on and bites a mouse. The tick then bites a human and the rest is waves of fatigue, illness, antibiotic dosages and sharply reduced quality of life.

Malaria is a similarly roundabout infection, transmitted by everyone’s favorite pest: mosquitoes.

300 to 500 million people get infected and more than 1 million, primarily kids under 5, die from malaria each year.

With CRISPR, scientists will be able to cut out the gene that allows mosquitoes to harbor the parasite that carries malaria and then ensure that this change is pushed down through generations and overtakes an entire population.

If successful, this would end the scourge of malaria which kills millions and is a huge drag on a survivor’s ability to get out of poverty.

1m-contest-malaria-no-more

Genetic diseases

So many diseases and susceptibilities are inherited, from cystic fibrosis to Down’s syndrome to sickle cell anemia to short-sightedness to mental illnesses.

Other diseases stem from a random mutation in a person’s genome.

CRISPR may be able to fix a person’s genome so they never have to suffer from terrible diseases that occur at times seemingly arbitrarily.  

This is especially promising for people in poverty who often lack the resources to fully deal with disease.

Plus, once a disease is removed from a person’s genome, future generations will be protected from it. Making it a cost effective way to protect entire communities for years.

Cancer

One of the chief enemies of human life, cancer affects people from all backgrounds. But poverty is a major risk factor: a person in poverty faces stress, environmental toxins and circumstances that puts her at a higher risk of getting cancer. She is also less likely to get early treatment and to be able to pay for full and adequate treatment.

Cancer is notoriously unpredictable and hard to contain. Every person seems to have their own unique type of cancer that could defy treatments that worked for others.  

kenya-cervical-cancer-main Abigail Higgins.jpgImage: Abigail Higgins/ Takepart

With CRISPR, it may be possible to craft a “therapeutic roadmap” for each person’s cancer that accurately predicts and addresses all the potential mutations that could emerge. This would theoretically render all cancers treatable.  

Agriculture and food


The food, agricultural and scientific communities really failed to communicate the benefits of GMOs. And why they insisted on such a literal name--genetically modified organism--I will never know.

When legitimate information started to hit major news outlets, the conversation was already overwhelmed by fear, leaving little room for meaningful information to influence people.

GMO hero-wheat edited.jpgImage: Source- Wikimedia Commons- russavia

GMOs pose no inherent risk to humans (it’s basically an accelerated form of natural selection), and they will be critical in the current and coming fights against food insecurity and climate change.

But now they face an uphill battle to public acceptance.

Some scientists think that CRISPR will be a more palatable concept, but I have my doubts--it’s still a complex technological process that may disturb the public.

CRISPR doesn’t entail putting foreign DNA into crops, but will instead modify existing genomes to improve resilience to drought, storms, extreme heat and other conditions as well as increase nutrient profiles.

Soybeans, potatoes and rice have already been enhanced.

Scientists will also be able to remove the allergens from foods like peanuts.  

These advances could hugely improve food security around the world, and thus give a major lift to people facing extreme poverty.

Saving trees

Trees might just be the best things on Earth--they allow us to live, provide us with food and are beautiful.

Almond treesImage: Flickr: Steve Corey

In addition to humans cutting down billions and billions of trees, pests also devastate forests.

For instance, rising temperatures and extended warm seasons in North America have allowed Pine Beetles to thrive. Now, these bugs are devouring pine forests all across the Western US and Canada.

CRISPR will allow scientists to remove certain genes that attract pests and activate others that protect against them.

Organ transplants

I had bacon over the weekend. It was very tasty. I, like many other people, have no problem eating what’s inside a pig (not every day of course).

But would I let a pig be a part of me? Would I become part pig?

Scientists have long wanted to use pig organs to end the perpetual shortage of human organs. Normally, a person has to wait a very long time before an acceptable organ becomes available.

Pigs have organs that are similar to a human’s, but pig DNA is filled with retroviruses that would infect a human upon transplant.

CRISPR allows scientists to get rid of these viruses, theoretically opening the door to an abundance of safe organs. This could drastically cut down on the black market trade for organs that preys on people in poverty.

Antibiotics

Super bacteria is scary stuff. I’ve previously written about the fears of a post-antibiotic era, a time when antibiotics no longer work against bacterial infections.

The prevalence of superbugs is rising each year and the prospect of developing stronger antibiotics is still a distant prospect.

Salmonella bacteriaImage: Flickr: NIAID

But CRISPR could help in devising new ways of treating antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Water treatment

783 million people around the world do not have access to clean water. Oftentimes, people contract preventable diseases from contaminated water that can kill them or leave them in horrible health.

Clean_water_more_toilets_Canada_Earth_Day.jpgImage: Jim Holmes for AusAID

CRISPR can help develop enzymes that can effectively and cheaply treat water. Solving the water crisis is a key to ending extreme poverty.

Biofuels

Humanity is desperately searching for alternatives to fossil fuels. So far, biofuels have been inefficient: they cause too much farmland to be occupied, they are difficult to process, expensive and still pollute the atmosphere.

Some scientists hope that CRISPR will once again make biofuels promising.


These are just some of the most widely discussed potential uses for CRISPR. The full range of possibilities are far and wide.

Of course, serious caution has to be used. The ethics of gene-editing have to be thoroughly considered and when guidelines are established they have to be followed.

I’m not enthusiastic about CRISPR drastically altering the human genome. The idea of significantly changing the human condition is eerie.  

But CRISPR seems like it could be a tool to reduce extreme poverty and close the global gap of inequality. That is something I can get behind.