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Perilous Potential of CRISPR

Researchers have recently gathered in Napa Valley for a sort of déjà vu meeting, Wired writes. Just like in the 1970s when researchers gathered to grapple with the ethical use of a new biotech tool, they again were coming together to discuss the implications of another tool, this time genome engineering.

CRISPR-based genome engineering holds a lot of potential for therapeutics and more — on its cover, Wired says it could solve hunger, eliminate pollution, and eradicate diseases, claims that led to the Twitter hashtag #crisprfacts — but also could be misused.

Most work, Wired's Amy Maxmen notes, isn't and won't be controversial, but that CRISPR is so easy to use is both its strength and its weakness. Editing a human embryo, it adds, sounds all sorts of ethical alarms, but other changes, such as to mosquitoes in an attempt to eliminate the malaria parasite they can carry could have downstream consequences for the insects that eat mosquitoes.

And companies seeking to capitalize on the tool are popping up, Maxmen adds, as "swarms of investors are racing to bring genetically engineered creations to market. The idea of CRISPR slides almost frictionlessly into modern culture."

Unlike in the 1970s, she says it's the scientists who are the most concerned about how the technology can be used. When Maxmen asks Harvard's George Church for his worst-case scenario use of CRISPR, she writes that he mumbles something about weapons, but then stops himself and says he'd rather take the idea to his grave.

"But thousands of other scientists are working on CRISPR," she notes. "Not all of them will be as cautious."