Genetic manipulation: “the Wild West frontier has just been open”

Back in January we have the pleasure to have a very nice chat with Prof. Dr. Jaime Carvajal, who loves Chile and travelled directly from Spain to get involved in a workshop on the genetic manipulation technology CRISPR/Cas9, organized by Dr. Carlos Blondel at Universidad Autónoma de Chile.
Prof. Dr. Jaime Carvajal
Dr. Marcela Gatica-Andrades

Dr. Marcela Gatica-Andrades

18, April 2018

Jaime is Spanish and lived in Chile during his childhood, when his love for science started, he said. He is currently a scientist at the Superior Council of Scientific Research in Spain, works at the Andaluz Center of Developmental Biology and he is also a EMMA (European Mouse Mutant Archive) reviewer, where he takes part at the revision board for the new transgenic mice lines that could be preserved.

Jaime does an important job in science communication as well and he actually shared a bit of his experiences at schools with us. He usually talks to the students about what scientists do and how they have gotten to reach their knowledge: “I talk to them about different ways to learn and I get them shocked when I tell them stuff that they heard as children but that is not true. So I tell them that eating carrots does not improve vision, homeopathy does not work, you do not have to wait an hour before going into the water, I tell them where these myths come from, they laugh a lot”.foto_1_reportaje_1

Prof. Dr. Jaime Carvajal

Last advances in genetic manipulation

CRISPR/Cas9 technology is the last advance in genetic manipulation and it has already become a revolution in science. It does not only allow to do genetic manipulation with better precision than the past, but also is technically easy and very cheap. Thus, any lab in the world could benefit from this technique.

Jaime said that until now it had been quite complicated to do genetic manipulation with such a precision: “Mouse genetic modification is recent, by now it is 30 years doing modification in mice (…) It used to be quite difficult to modify any organism (…) And suddenly you find out this tool, that is cheap and easy to use, so it is shocking (…) Right now we are in a period of time where the wild west frontier has just been open and everyone come to see what they can do”.

Jaime emphasizes that the application field of this technology is huge and that the new generations are the ones that are going to discover the first applications.

Considering the high precision of this technology, Jaime told us that when it started used to be use just for cutting regions at the genetic material. However, that is in the past. Today is possible to modify this system in a way that it can be programed to produce that a spot in the genome get activated or blocked, label a particular sequence by fluorescence to then be able to observe it by several colors.


Would you like to know what Jaime is studying in his lab?


Universidad Autónoma. Part of the streaming casted during the CRISPR/Cas9 workshop held in January 2018.

What about the ethical concerns that this technology implies?

Jaime replied this question by making a parallel with what happened in 70`s during the boom of bacterial genetic manipulation. At that time, it was discussed how far we could go with these advances. As a result, it was decided to establish a moratorium until the effects of this technology could be known: “I think that this is what has happened with CRISPR. One or two years ago there was a meeting in Napa (California) (…) And the proposition was the same. I mean, we are going to have a moratorium, a general agreement on not modifying the human genome until we know more about”.

How true is that we can modify babies as we wish?

Jaime pointed out that it has been a lot of discussion about using CRISPR to genetically modify babies, but without considering what this really would technically mean: “It would have no sense exposing a future human being to a modification when it is possible to do a selection. This is what is done today, they are selected. There are diseases, like Huntington, where embryos are already selected when the disease is absent or when parents suffer from it. So that question is restricted to just few cases of disease”.

[SPANISH] “Would you apply CRISPR on you to change the color of your eyes if you get told that as a consequence you could get cancer, the answer is no. But if you suffer from a devastating disease, like Friedreich ataxia, Duchenne dystrophy, where there is no patient alive after 30 years old, so then the risk is worth”.

[SPANISH] “How many times do you think that the DNA of a single human being can go to the sun and come back? More than 450 times, it is amazing”

[SPANISH] “When I told them we pay thousand of dollars to publish a paper with my science in a journal, they do not believe it, “you are crazy”. At the end the system take advantage from the fact that we love what we do”

In deep...
CRISPR/Cas9 and the problem of mosaicism

Mosaicism is pointed as one of the possible technical issues derived from using this technique in organisms. In simple terms it implies that despite you design a very specific system to do a punctual genetic manipulation, probably collateral effects are going to happen and you end up with unplanned genetic changes. Thus, the final result could be a “mosaic” of products or genetic changes.

Dr. Marcela Gatica-Andrades

18, April 2018