In November, news that a Chinese scientist had modified the genes of twin babies—hoping to make them resistant to HIV—sent shockwaves around the world. But “designer babies” are only one of many ways that gene editing techniques can be used, and many of the others have progressed further in the journey from lab experiment to actual application.
Innovation sped up with the 2012 discovery that a natural molecule called Crispr could be adapted to serve as a particularly low-cost and high-efficiency gene editing technology. Any organism can be subject to the Crispr scissors. That ranges from food we consume, animals we keep company with, to humans. New uses typically start by scientists in research labs. The most promising get external money to do extensive tests in trials. Then there are regulatory barriers, legal barriers and ethical barriers to clear before the application actually reaches the consumers.
Here’s a look at the key events so far in the ever-expanding landscape of Crispr applications. The speed of marketization varies across industries.
While using Crispr in the medical field has attracted the most attention and discussion, agricultural applications have already passed the stage of lab tests and are the closest to mass production. The US Department of Agriculture has greenlit crops with genes altered by Crispr and other gene editing technologies for years. The first commercial Crispr-edited agricultural product, an extra-waxy corn from DowDupont for use as a starchy thickener, has been in the research pipeline since 2016 and is expected to hit the US market around 2020.
Gene-edited animals are on the way, too. They face higher regulatory barriers than plants, as the FDA treats the process of editing the genes of an animal similar to drugs for animals, but lower barriers than treatments for humans.