The ongoing buzz over CRISPR gene editing is continuing to gather pace – and so is research that is using this technique, which appears to be snowballing merrily away whilst ethics committees rush to keep upThere have been a couple of news features in Nature journal out recently that have focused on the explosion in “designer” genetically engineered animals using this technique. I’m not going to reiterate what somebody’s already written, but they’re interesting reads. The links are here:

Welcome to the crispr zoo

China’s bold push into genetically engineered animals

There are some neat ideas in there: making non-allergenic chicken’s eggs sounds really useful and not that radical a change (as the article points out, many vaccines contain egg components, meaning children with these allergies can’t have them). Critically, the kind of precision genetic engineering needed to make a protein non-allergenic but not destroy its essential function in the organism is something that really can only be done with a tool like CRISPR. More generally, improving disease resistance in domestic crops and animals is important, and has been happening artificially through the process of selective breeding for centuries anyway. Trying to bring back mammoths (which has been mooted with non-CRISPR methods before this) is frankly a silly and ethically dubious waste of money, as far I’m concerned.

It’s tempting to imagine a crude version of that old science fiction trope, wherein hordes of freakish genetically engineered animals cause inventive chaos and provide a salutary warning about “playing God”. Whilst I don’t think it’ll get that exciting, there are important considerations about this type of engineering. As the second article notes:

Unlike past gene therapies, changes made using CRISPR to zygotes or embryos can become “permanent”—that is, they are made to the DNA that will be passed onto future generations.

One quote in Welcome to the CRISPR zoo did make me raise my eyebrows a little, not so much for the science as for the, well, names:

The researchers also plan to produce chickens with components required for CRISPR integrated directly into their genomes — what they call CRISPi chickens. This would make it even easier to edit chicken DNA, which could be a boon for ‘farmaceuticals’ — drugs created using domesticated animals.

CRISPi chickens? That sounds like it came straight out of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (which I recommend, particularly the second book). In her corrupt, soon-to-be-fallen world of easy-peasy genetic engineering and mega-corporate control and corruption, there are sheep with human hair (Mo’Hairs) and pigs with human brain tissue (Pigoons). There are also ChickieNobs, which are essentially chickens reduced to blobs of flesh for human consumption without any other functions (including brain):

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

One of the characters does raise the point that the chicken has no brain and cannot feel pain, so it is, in that sense “ethical meat”, so it’s interesting in that the description provokes a visceral sense of revulsion in the reader. The pigoons, more pertinently, are bred to grow human organs that can be safely transplanted: xenografts. This is clearly a benevolent intent (although again, it is noted that they will make megabucks for the designer).

The creations in Atwood’s world are, I suspect, more a damning indictment of the effect runaway neoliberal market economics would have on what gets genetically engineered than on the technology itself. The names of the big companies and the products are howlingly, knowingly awful: HelthWyzer, CorpSeCorps and, worst of all, the beauty spa company AnooYoo. And there will be certainly cases where the money is going to be talking: I suspect anyone protesting about the use of genetically engineered organisms is not going to be directing their ire at the Wuzhishan miniature pig (generated using TALENS and intensive breeding, not CRISPR). These have been bred for medical research due to their similarity to humans – but they are also intended as pets. It may well be a more frivolous use that first propels a genetically engineered animal to global popularity.

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