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Imagine this: What if scientists had a tool that allowed them to edit genes directly, altering their underlying DNA? The science-fictional applications, like designer babies or Frankensteined organisms, would be obvious—although ethical and legal rules in science and medicine might prevent such uses. Immediate applications would be more mundane, but also more significant: understanding and treating disease, manufacturing new types of pharmaceuticals, and engineering more resilient foods, for starters.
There’s no need to imagine, actually. Such a tool does exist, and scientists have been refining it over the last decade or so. But despite massive hype in the science and general press, it probably remains unfamiliar or misunderstood to many people, especially those who don’t follow science news regularly. The reason might have to do with its terrible branding.
In fact, there’s already a Snickers Crisper candy bar (no relation), which adds crunchy rice to that treat’s trademark peanuts, nougat, and caramel. And a German-language CRISPR explainer video starts by forgiving the viewer for thinking that it might be a cereal bar.
The gene-editing tool is called CRISPR, an acronym for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. More confusingly, the strands of DNA called CRISPR have been around for billions of years. Bacteria use CRISPR to slice out portions of an attacking virus, storing them in their own DNA for later defense. Recently, scientists found a way to harness this mechanism for genetic inspection and editing. Unlike earlier gene-editing techniques, CRISPR is faster, cheaper, and more reliable.
Meanwhile, CRISPR research and development is accelerating. CRISPR hype is skyrocketing. That pace will only increase now that the patent dispute has concluded, clearing the way for lucrative licensing... But it is impossible to debate a technology’s applications in the public forum without an effective way to refer to the thing being debated. Unless the scientific community acts to explain and clarify the technology, its uses, and its dangers, it will cede that right to others.