Thoughts on Gene Editing

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2017


Gene editing is an up-and-coming hot technology. One of the big breakthroughs has been the steady progress in making CRISPR technology faster, more versatile, easier to use, and cheaper. The result of this will be even more experimenting and more surprises coming in the understanding of genes and their editing.

This essay explores what is coming up.

The significance of CRISPR

Prior to CRISPR gene editing was a clumsy and limited process. The most common form of gene editing was breeding. It has been around for centuries but the range of changes is limited to what Mother Nature will produce with natural mutations and the rate of changing is slow, at best one experiment per generation.

The first big breakthrough was understanding the chemistry of genes -- Watson and Crick discovering the function of DNA in 1953. But that just told scientists where to look, it didn't tell them how to manipulate.

The second big breakthrough has been CRISPR. It allows manipulation, and it allows the manipulation to become much like writing text -- you can create phrases and then cut and paste them into an existing body of work -- the DNA of an existing cell.

Wow! Now we can have genetic editors who function much as English editors do. This is a big change.

Just as significant is that Moore's Law-style knowledge and cost trends seem to be applying to gene editing as well. In the 2010's it is getting steadily faster, easier and cheaper to edit and this is likely to continue for at least another couple decades.

This is opening up the world of gene editing to more and more people.

Who will be editing

In the form of breeding gene editing has fascinated people since prehistory. It is not surprising that many people are taking advantage of the latest tools. I can recall reading articles about people getting into DIY gene editing of bacteria while I was at MIT in the early 1970's.

Little came of those efforts, but, again, with the cost coming down and the capabilities rising, there are going to be lots more people getting involved in the activity.

And, again, with the new tools allowing gene editing to get more and more like language editing, the human skills that can be applied are going to get much more powerful and creative.

Given these trends, who will be editing? I envision several categories of future editors:

o The amateur DIY editors will grow steadily in numbers. They are going to have an influence similar to the influence hobby enthusiasts had on the evolution of personal computers. It was the hobbyists who promoted the development of personal computers as open and "personal" -- as one example, the computers were called microcomputers in the late-1970's, the name switch to personal came after the IBM PC was introduced in 1981. Contrast the evolution of personal computers in the 1980's to the evolution of minicomputers in the 1960's -- compare DEC to Apple. The amateur DIY people will keep the gene editing field open and knowledge flowing widely and easily.

o There will be professional editors. They will fill niches similar to professional writers. If you need "serious" editing done and want consistent results, you hire a professional. Professionals will have access to better tools than amateurs, but, if the Moore's Law trend stays strong, they won't be a whole lot better, and the tools will be constantly improving for everyone, just as hardware and software keep constantly improving in the computer realms.

o There will be wide ranges in the skills and specialties of editors, there will be wide ranges in the styles of editors. Many will be steady, mundane, get the job done types. A few will be rock star types who come up with innovations that titillate the public. And there will be lots and lots who aspire to be these rock star types.

Who will want editing

Those people who want better breeds will be first in line for wanting editing -- farmers of various varieties ranging from those who make a living at it to those who pursue it as a serious hobby. Right in line with these people will be those who are creating foods in new technological ways -- the people growing meat for hamburgers in vats. All these are the commodity users -- the first users, and the ones you expect to be using it. There will also be surprise users.

One category of surprise users will be women... er, people, who want to raise better babies and children. It is a strong instinct to want the best for an upcoming child, and as gene editing becomes part of the "best for my child" thinking universe the demand will grow, and become real strong.

Another category will be those who want to self-modify to improve their health and their physical performance. "If gene editing can reduce risk of a heart attack, why not?" "If gene editing can help me concentrate on getting my job done, why not?"-style thinking.

Still others will be those that want to experiment with the limits of what life can produce. For instance, can we design microorganisms that breath chlorine instead of oxygen? This is an idea that has been around a long time for science fiction aliens.

These are the kinds of peoples and endeavors that gene editing will likely become of interest to.

Upcoming surprises

The range of things that will be edited will be amazing. We already have millions of species and hundreds of thousands of genes in those species, and this is just what Mother Nature has come up with using random changes over a few billion years. As humans advance their knowledge and widen their technique base the changes are going to get smarter and smarter. This means making advances in conventional editing much faster, and it means going places with editing that Mother Nature could never reach. Both can and will produce surprises.

The world-shaking surprises will be those that spread widely and get taken for granted -- the "Of course we do that. You didn't grandpa?" sort. What they will be will be... surprising. [grin]


Gene editing is a wild and wooly frontier technology. It is of interest to a lot of people, and the techniques for doing it are steadily getting faster, cheaper and easier to use. This means that lots more people are going to get involved and what gets attempted is going to steadily widen in nature.

There are lots of surprises coming. There will be surprises in what gets attempted, what gets discovered, and who gets interested in using these fascinating new products that will be created.



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