Kevin Esvelt, an assistant professor at MIT, has always been fascinated by the possibilities inherent in scientific research. Reading Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” as a boy was not just an exciting read; it sparked his career in biotechnology.
Esvelt, now 34 and directing MIT’s “sculpting evolution” group is finding that there are always ways for him to push the envelope of what’s considered possible. Up until recently, humanity has only been capable of altering the environment in destructive ways; dredging swamps, making use of pesticides, and hunting species to extinction.
Now, CRISPR, a gene editing tool, could change all of this and allow scientists to control populations in a non-destructive way. CRISPR, though already present in nature, has been harnessed to allow for the cutting and replacement of genetic information. Genetic manipulation has always been a controversial subject for its potential to create unforeseen consequences—indeed, many novels, films, and television shows feature genetics gone wrong, including the aforementioned Jurassic Park.
Esvelt has been single-minded about pursuing the applications of genetic manipulation. He has given presentations across the world about his work and how it can be used to fight disease. Though he champions the use of gene modification, he also acknowledges how dangerous the process can be and maintains transparency throughout all of his work.
Recently, he has focused on working to eliminate Lyme disease in Nantucket, an isolated enough environment to test CRISPR’s capabilities on a smaller scale. Granted, this process would still involve a great amount of effort, but CRISPR makes editing a large population much more viable than in the past.
When confronted with the conundrum of how to effectively eliminate Lyme disease from Nantucket, Esvelt and his team realized that they would need to work with the mice on the island rather than the ticks that spread the disease. Since ticks get Lyme and other disease from the mice they feed on, breeding and releasing a population of mice resistant to the disease would stem its spread. Moreover, genetic manipulation also guarantees that the crucial genes will be passed down through future generations, ensuring that the solution is permanent.
Elsewhere around the world, CRISPR is gaining interest for its potential to curb outbreaks of diseases. Mosquitos, considered the deadliest animals in the world for the diseases they carry, particularly malaria, kill roughly 725,000 individuals per year. Similarly, other pests across the world are responsible for a high number of fatalities.
However, while Esvelt does not deny that he’d love to see these diseases eliminated, he maintains that his research is primarily about revolutionizing the way we do science.
It’s easy to see how CRISPR can have such a massive impact on research; what originally required generations of mice and months of breeding can now be done across a single generation with modification.
It’s also becoming far less costly; the reason why Esvelt is convinced that genetic modification needs to be regulated before it becomes problematic. Even though eliminating diseases by modifying mosquitoes sounds great in theory, executing such an ambitious plan on a worldwide scale would require careful preparation and study to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. Furthermore, CRISPR also gives individuals the opportunity to use genetics as a weapon by spreading disease further instead of curtailing it.
We’re standing on the brink of grand changes when it comes to working with Mother Nature. Scientists such as Esvelt have been forced to reevaluate how research is conducted, in the hopes that a more open scientific community has the potential to better regulate itself.
Until that happens, expect to hear more about genetic modification; though inevitably controversial, it may be on par with inventions such as vaccines and synthetic fertilizer when it comes to saving lives.