CRISPR – For Good or Evil? (1st seven weeks)
F 2017


CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene-editing technique developed independently by Jennifer Doudna at Cal Berkeley and by Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute at Harvard/MIT. This new technology has the potential to improve our health, our agriculture and to affect our natural environment by controlling pests and invasive species. What is lacking at this stage, although it is amply discussed at scientific meetings, are the ethics of man playing God.

In November of 2016, CRISPR gene editing was used in China to treat a cancer patient with modified T-cells targeted to attack and destroy cancer cells. Meanwhile, US scientists are about to launch the first human trials using CRISPR-modified cells to treat cancer.

On January 26, 2017, the Salk Institute announced that they succeeded to grow human stem cells in pig embryos, allowing the possibility of developing human organs in animals for transplants. The organ-growing animals would be prime examples of chimeras, animals composed of two different genomes.

Also in January of this year, the outgoing Obama Administration, in the update of decades-old policy for reviewing US biotechnology products, left out any new regulations concerning the use of CRISPR gene editing for developing new food products. For example, apples or mushrooms that resist browning! There is no oversight to any of these changes and how they may affect our well-being.

On January 23, 2017, scientists at the Scripps Institute created the first stable semi-synthetic organism by adding two synthetic nucleotide bases to the four naturally-occurring bases in bacteria, thereby creating a new life form.

These last few paragraphs indicate the ethical difficulties that will face us, without a real road map, for how to employ these new technologies both for good and possibly bad uses. The possibilities are limitless and the changes are occurring so rapidly that we have to trust our scientists to remember Isaac Azimov's First Law of Robotics: Not to do evil!

Weekly Topics

1. Introduction to the basic biochemistry, aimed at the non-scientists. Explain the road map that led to CRISPR/Cas9.

2. The Inventors and their approach to their work and their thoughts on the bio-ethical issues that have arisen.

3. Patents, Universities, Public Money, and Biotech Firms and how they interact. Is CRISPR-Cas9 already being displaced with new and better methods? What will that do to the entire patent situation?

4. What and were is CRISPR-Cas9 used and for what purposes?

5. What will be the effect of the readily available CRISPR kits, sold for High School Labs, home studies, etc., for both the good and bad guys?

6. Will the medical and agricultural use that the researchers are trying to accomplish be outweighed by its use to change the sex, eye colors or other possible genetic modifications in embryos?

7. Now that Pandora's box been opened are we prepared to control it, use it responsibly or will it be the Wild West??


This is so new, that most information is most readily available on the Internet. Some text books are available but the cost is in the hundred dollar range.

For a very good non-scientific explanation the following articles are very good for an introduction.

Time Magazine, July 4, 2016 issue: Life the Remix.

National Geographic 8/28/2016 Issue, DNA Revolution

More Scientific References:

CRISPR Germline Alteration : De-Extinction Research, CRISPR/cas9, Designer babies and Gene editing (ZFN, TALEN,Life extension of Reverse aging ): Impact On Human Civilization. (2016)  by Dr. Kathy Panoutsos M.D. 

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. (2017) by Jennifer A. Douda and Samuel H. Sternberg.

Arthur Toffler's "Future Shock" would be applicable for this class.