MY GENETK DESIGN Kits arrived in abox bearing a stylized version of Yggdrasil, the world tree in Norse mythology, with a twist of the DNA double-helix as part of its trunk. On the sides of the box, Odin's ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory), exchange a strand of DNA. Odin had, in fact, sent me the box, and by Odin, I mean The ODIN--The Open Discovery Institute, a company that aims to make do-it-yourself genome editing easy. I was ready to start genetically editing bacteria at home.
This is possible because of CRISPR, a technology that is already revolutionizing food, medicine, and more. CRISPR comprises two key molecules. One is the Cas9 protein, an enzyme that can cut two strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome so that bits of DNA can then be added or removed. The second is a single-strand RNA that can identify and guide the protein to exactly the site in a genome that a researcher wants to engineer. The system has been likened to precise molecular scissors.
Using the handy tools sent in the kit, I was set to re-engineer some nonpathogenic E. coli in my kitchen. That might sound terrifying; surely journalists shouldn't be trusted to build superbugs. Relax. The lab-created strain provided in the kit was developed to be easy to engineer and does not live in the wild. While CRISPR holds incredible potential for in-lab and at-home genetic modification and experimentation, my efforts were strictly school science fair stuff--my modified bacteria posed no civilizational risk, and the process of creating them was fun, fascinating, and empowering.
THE CRISPR REVOLUTION began in 2012, when Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Sweden's Umea University published an article in Science describing how elements of a bacterial immune system could be used as a very precise gene-editingtool. In 2013, Broad Institute researcher Feng Zhang showed that CRISPR could edit genes in human cells. (A big CRISPR patent fight between Berkeley and the Broad Institute is now underway.)
Since then, there's been a flood of research into therapeutic uses of the technique. Last year, Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University used CRISPR to correct a genetic mutation in human embryos that causes heart disease. Other researchers are working on CRISPR therapies to cure Huntington's, Parkinson's, sickle cell anemia, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and various congenital blindnesses. Chinese physicians are already running trials in which they use CRISPR to rev up cancer patients' immune cells. This summer a trial at the University of Pennsylvania will try to use CRISPR techniques to treat multiple myeloma, sarcoma, and melanoma. Some...