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from PBS NewsHour, January 5, 2017

Imagine you could edit a mouse’s genes to be resistant to Lyme Disease. The mouse would breed and evolution would take its course, leading to the extinction of the disease.

  pbs-newshourThat’s the vision for scientists developing CRISPR, technology that allows scientists to rewrite the code of life. William Brangham talks to Michael Specter who wrote about CRISPR for The New Yorker. JUDY WOODRUFF: As Vice President Biden said earlier, innovations in genetics could be crucial to finding cures for diseases like cancer. One of the most significant developments in this field is the newly discovered ability to modify the very genes in our DNA. The technique is known by the acronym CRISPR. William Brangham has our conversation. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: CRISPR is a technique that allows scientists to go into the DNA of a plant or an animal or even a human being and remove or replace a small part of that organism’s genetic code. This technique, which can be used to improve crops, eliminate genetic diseases, or specifically target the viruses and pathogens that have killed billion, could be a revolutionary advancement. The potential for CRISPR is described in the recent issue of The New Yorker. The story is called “ Rewriting the Code of Life.” And I’m joined now by its author, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter. He joins me from California. Michael Specter, welcome. In your story, you profile a young scientist named Kevin Esvelt. And I want to quote a line from your story. You say that Esvelt directs the — quote — “sculpting evolution group at MIT, where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world.” I mean, that’s a pretty extraordinary set of ambitions. What are they trying to do? MICHAEL SPECTER, The New Yorker: You know, they’re trying to look out the problems we have in health, in crops in a variety of ways, and rewrite DNA, which is the basic code of life, so that it can make us healthier, safer, protect crops, protect trees, protect endangered species. It’s a tremendously energetic and ambitious idea. And it has — like all wonderfully ambitious ideas, it has great risks, too. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You report on a particular experiment they’re running up in Nantucket trying to target Lyme disease. Can you explain what they’re hoping to do there? MICHAEL SPECTER: Mostly, people think about Lyme disease in deer. And there is a relationship. But the real reservoir for Lyme is the white-footed mouse. At Kevin Esvelt at MIT said, gee, let’s rewrite the DNA of the mouse so that it is resistant to the Lyme tick, so when a Lyme tick bites it, it doesn’t matter. And when you do that, you sort of break this chain of transmission between mice and deer and humans. And if you did that enough, and if you really rewrote the DNA — mice are not that rapid, but they’re relatively rapid at reproducing — and you can quite easily see a way in which you would get rid of that disease. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, as you describe it in this piece, CRISPR is really putting us in the driver’s seat for evolution, and not only to control, in some ways, evolution, but to accelerate evolution. Am I understanding that this just seems to be a tremendously — tremendous potential for this? MICHAEL SPECTER: I think the particularly revolutionary thing here is the combination of CRISPR, which is an editing program — it’s like editing something on your computer so that you can cut and paste words — combining that with this phenomenon called gene drive. See the entire interview on PBS NewsHour.