Science journalist discusses genetic modification revolution

Sharon Begley talks about the CRISPR Revolution in Konover Auditorium, a gene manipulation process that may have incredible applications to science on Wednesday, October 26, 2016. Begley was invited to come speak by the Leadership Legacy at UConn. (Tyler Benton/The Daily Campus)

Science journalist Sharon Begley discussed the mechanism and impact of genome remodeling techniques involving CRISPR-Cas9 technology Wednesday night, as part of the University of Connecticut's Leadership Legacy Experience Program.

Genome modification has the potential to cure genetic disorders, enhance the efficiency of livestock and prevent diseases such as malaria, Begley said.  

“It’s a way to discover what genes are responsible for… [certain] human diseases,” Begley said.

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a specific set of molecules that can ‘edit’ a strand of DNA, either changing a sequence or deleting a gene entirely.

CRISPR was used successfully in a laboratory setting to modify DNA sequences in 2012, Begley said, and has been increasing in usage since then.

Previously, Begley had worked as the science editor for The Boston Globe and The Daily Beast. Begley said she has studied CRISPR technology extensively and travels to various campuses to hold presentations.

CRISPR, Begley said, can be used to replace faulty DNA sequences that cause life-threatening diseases such as sickle cell anemia, cancer and Parkinson’s. The CRISPR molecules repair the DNA causing the disorder, she said, curing the diseases.

Another use for CRISPR, Begley said, is finding the function of certain genes by ‘knocking’ them out and seeing what happens to the cell or organ.

Scientists are still unaware of exactly what certain genes and sequences or in the human genome do, since a large percentage is either leftover from evolutionary dead ends, is transplanted viral DNA or occasional nonsense strands. By using CRISPR to cut out certain genes, Begley said, it can be discovered how organisms are affected. For example, if cutting out a certain gene causes a lab mouse to start growing tumors, then it can be determined that the gene codes for a tumor-suppressor protein.

Begley used multiple graphics and examples of various diseases to articulate her points. One recent development in the media world, she said, is the integration of CRISPR references in mainstream media.

“Pop culture has become CRISPR’d,” she said.

The recent Netflix/Marvel superhero series ‘Luke Cage’ is one such example, Begley said. While the backstory of the eponymous hero used to be that he was treated with ‘Super Soldier Serum’ to give him super strength and impenetrable skin, the writers of the show instead decided to make it so that CRISPR technology, and gene editing, were the cause of Luke Cage’s midlife empowerment.

In 2014, CRISPR technology was successfully used to modify the DNA of many embryos, Begley said, that were brought to term and born alive. There were not any negative side effects from the genetic modification, which opens up a new world of genetic modification.

“The obvious [question] is, could the next generation generation of athletes be CRISPR’d [to have larger muscles?]” Begley said. “Will it come to a point where... parents will be able to specify the sort of traits they want in a child?”

Though it is currently illegal to perform any sort of germ line (embryonic) genetic modification on humans using federal funds within the United States, Begley said that the idea of ‘designer babies’—embryos selectively modified for desired traits, so as to produce the ‘perfect offspring’—is still a very clear worry on people’s minds.

Additionally, Begley said, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center, many members of the public are concerned that the technology will only be available for the wealthy, giving them a genetic advantage in obtaining jobs and succeeding in life.

While CRISPR can help people, Begley said, it is important to include the public in conversations about genetic modification.

“The worry is that the technology is outpacing the public readiness for it,” Begley said. “[However,] to limit the public discussion to [only] the people who are science savvy... is problematic. You can explain it to [people] what the potential is, and [they] can use their judgement and ideology to make decision [about CRISPR].”

Audience members said that they felt Begley explained CRISPR well in her presentation, reflecting Begley’s goal of demystifying the subject to the common layperson.

“I think she did a good job,” said Rebekah Rowe, a first semester biomolecular engineering major. “I wanted to learn about it… She gave us a lot of examples and ways of defining gene editing. [CRISPR] has the potential for both harm and help, but I think that it will be used to help people.”

Others appreciated the variety of uses of CRISPR that Begley discussed.

“It has so many potential [uses] in so many fields,” said seventh semester diagnostic genetics major Kira Dineen. Dineen hosts the WHUS science podcast ‘DNA Today,’ which focuses on technologies and advances in the world of genetics.

“[The presentation] was at a level that everyone could understand,” she said. “[The technology] can be used in athletics, in things that you wouldn’t think would be involved on a genetic level.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing