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Enthusiasm and Ethics

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna's interest in CRISPR stemmed from its role as a sort of bacterial immune system, but along the way, they realized that CRISPR and its enabling protein Cas9 could be combined into a single tool that could possibly work in a range of organisms, the New York Times Magazine reports.

"That was the moment the project went from being 'This is cool, this is wonky' to 'Whoa, this could be transformative,'" the University of California, Berkeley's Doudna says.

The tool has since captured the imaginations of researchers in academia, at fledgling startups, and at established companies, Times Magazine's Jennifer Kahn reports. It's being used to develop models for psychiatric diseases — as the Broad Institute's Feng Zhang, who pioneered the approach's use in human cells, is pursuing — as well as to create better industrial enzymes, drought- or pest-resistant crops, and beefier livestock.

"There's an almost frantic feeling of discovery," one scientist tells Kahn. "CRISPR has made so many experiments possible — it's like standing in a candy store and knowing that you can choose just three things. Meanwhile, there are a thousand more experiments that you wish you could try, if only you had the time."

Part of its allure is its ease of use. But that is also what makes it potentially alarming.

A mistake in the guide RNA, Kahn says, could be the difference between making a virus mice can inhale to make a model of lung cancer versus one that would give people lung cancer.

Doudna convened a meeting in Napa in 2012 to discuss the ethical issues surrounding the use of CRISPR. Currently, Kahn notes that its use in embryos is under a voluntary moratorium in the US and is tightly regulated in Europe.

Doudna notes that she's received letters from women with BRCA mutations to see whether the tool could prevent them from passing on the mutation, though much more work needs to be done to gauge whether embryos can be safely edited.

She adds that at that Napa meeting, ''someone at the table said, 'There may come a time when, ethically, we can't not do this.'"

"That kind of made everybody sit back and think about it differently," Doudna says.