Learn about ‘CRISPR’ gene-editing with RadioLab’s podcast

“CRISPR” is a co-opted genetic system that evolved over billions of years to help bacteria fend off viral assassins. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

RadioLab produced yet another show that will take me days, perhaps weeks, to forget. This time around, it was about a revolutionary technology that will inevitably (and probably in the next few years) allow scientist to design humans and modify global ecosystems by editing genes.

It's called “CRISPR” and it was co-opted from a genetic system that evolved over billions of years to help bacteria fend off viral assassins.

The podcast titled "Update: CRISPR" was a long-overdue sequel to a previous story RadioLab released two summers ago. The latest show was produced and hosted by Molly Webster and Soren Wheeler, with notable guests like the New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer and University of California Santa Cruz geneticist Beth Shapiro, among others.

It would be a euphemism to say that the show was engaging. Not only is it extremely difficult to relate genetics to the vast majority of people who aren't geneticists, RadioLab managed to do it while essentially creating a movie inside my head.

They used sound effects and metaphors to describe how bacteria protect themselves from viruses by using the virus' DNA to detect it then slice it into harmless bits. They set the tone by infusing sounds from machines, battling worriers and ominous movie soundtracks to paint the cellular processes and relate the inevitable danger of actually using CRISPR for our own ends.

Sure, it may seem amazing to some – to design our baby’s genes or spread desirable DNA across ecosystems – but there are some obvious dark spots.

How many parents out there would refuse consent to a doctor offering to rid their baby of genes that cause genetic disorders. And genes that make people more susceptible to obesity. And, maybe genes that make our children smarter and better-behaved.

The sky seems to be the limit, but that’s exactly the problem. In this new gene-editing world, how do we define limits?

Scientists have even taken it a step further. By infusing organisms with the CRISPR system itself along with the gene they want to delete or add, they can create what they call a gene drive.

You insert a gene drive into a mosquito so that the genetic modification you incorporated spreads across populations as mosquitoes mate with each other and make more mosquitoes. This would happen quite rapidly and almost instantly.

Sure, getting rid of infectious diseases transmitted by insects is great, but how much farther can we go? And can we be certain that the genes we’re propagating into nature don’t have unintended consequences?

CRISPR is surely creating a buzz in the scientific community, but the public should be informed about the rapidly developing technology.  

If you want to understand how CRISPR works and what it can actually do, listen to RadioLabs podcast. You won’t be disappointed.


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.