Writer and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for her book The Sixth Extinction, which recounted the tremendous impact on biodiversity that human activities have. In his new work, ‘Under a white sky Kolbert’, he continues his journalistic work by telling from the ground how humans are modifying nature to the point of reinventing it. In this excerpt from one of the most interesting chapters, the journalist from ‘The New York Times’ describes how the genetic editing technique works CRISPR and it shows that anyone can buy a gene editing kit at home. In his book he also tells how this technique is being used to introduce genes into an invasive species of toad in Australia whose effect is to ensure the extinction of these animals. Read an excerpt from his new book below.
In Norse mythology, Odin is a very powerful god, but also a trickster. He has only one eye, because the other one sacrificed it to obtain wisdom. Among his many talents, he can awaken the dead, calm storms, heal the sick, and blind his enemies. It is not uncommon for him to transform into an animal, and in the form of a snake he acquires the gift of poetry, which he inadvertently transfers to some people.
The Odin, in Oakland, California, is a company that sells genetic engineering kits. Its founder, Josiah Zayner, wears a streak of dyed blonde hair, multiple piercings and a tattoo that urges whoever reads it: “Create something beautiful.” He has a Ph.D. in biophysics and is a known provocateur. Among his many reckless performances, he altered his skin to produce a fluorescent protein, ingested a friend’s excrement in a home-made stool transplant, and tried to turn off one of his own genes in an attempt to develop bigger biceps. (He acknowledges that this last attempt failed.) Zayner calls himself a “genetic designer” and has stated that his goal is to provide people with the resources they need to modify life in their spare time.
The Odin offers from a simple shot glass that has printed “biohack the planet “and costs three dollars, to a” genetic engineering home laboratory kit “that costs $ 1,849 and includes a centrifuge, a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) apparatus and a box of electrophoresis gel. I settled on something in between: the “bacterial CRISPR and fluorescent yeast combo kit,” which I left $ 209 for. It came to me in a cardboard box decorated with the company’s logo: a twisted-trunk tree surrounded by a circle made from a double helix of DNA. The tree, I believe, must represent the Yggdrasil, whose trunk, in Norse mythology, stands tall at the center of the cosmos.
We now have “a way to rewrite life’s own molecules the way we want to”
Inside the box I find an assortment of laboratory instruments (pipettes, Petri dishes, single-use gloves), as well as several vials with E. coli and everything you need to modify your genome. I put the vials of E. coli in the fridge, next to the butter. The rest I put in a freezer compartment, next to the ice cream. Genetic engineering has already reached maturity. The first bacteria modified using these techniques was produced in 1973. It was followed by a genetically modified mouse in 1974 and a transgenic tobacco plant in 1983. The first transgenic food authorized for human consumption, the Flavr Savr tomato, arrived in 1994, but it was such the disappointment that a few years later ceased to be cultivated. Around the same time, transgenic varieties of corn and soybeans were developed; Unlike the Flavr Savr, these have become more or less common in the United States.
In the last decade or more, genetic engineering itself has undergone its own transformation thanks to CRISPR, an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR is the short name for a series of techniques, most of them taken from bacteria, which greatly facilitate researchers and biohackers manipulation of DNA. And it allows its users to cut a section of DNA and deactivate the affected sequence or replace it with another.
The possibilities derived from this are almost innumerable. Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the researchers who developed the technique, has expressed this saying that we now have “a way to rewrite the very molecules of life the way we want.” With CRISPR, biologists have already created, among many other living things, ants that cannot smell, sighthounds with superhero muscles, pigs resistant to swine fever, macaques that suffer from sleep disturbances, coffee beans without caffeine, salmon that do not They lay eggs, mice that don’t accumulate fat, and bacteria whose genes are encoded in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous series of photographs of a galloping racehorse.
A few years ago, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, announced that he had produced the first CRISPR-edited humans, a pair of twins. According to He, he had altered the girls’ genes to make them resistant to HIV, although it is not entirely clear that he did. Shortly after announcing his achievement, He was placed under house arrest in Shenzhen.
I have almost no experience in genetics and have not been doing lab work since high school. Despite this, by following the instructions that came with the box of The Odin, I was able to create a new organism in just one weekend. I first grew a colony of E. coli in one of the Petri dishes. Then I sprinkled it with the various proteins and engineered DNA bits that I had kept in the freezer. The process changed a “letter” in the bacterium’s genome, replacing an A (adenine) with a C (cytosine). Thanks to this amendment, my new and improved E. coli You can safely stick your nose in streptomycin, a powerful antibiotic. Create in my own kitchen, with genetic engineering techniques, a strain of E. coli Drug resistant has been terrifying, but it has also given me a distinct sense of accomplishment. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided to move on to the second project in the kit: inserting a jellyfish gene into yeast to make it glow.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book ‘Under a White Sky’ (Review) is published on June 16