It is very interesting to analyze recent developments in genetic engineering from the lens of an artist. The recent discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 system allows us to easily and precisely edit the genome like never before (Jinek et al. 816). Perhaps the most exciting implication of this technology is that is dramatically lowers the price of performing gene editing. Whereas previous methods of genetic editing would have cost over $1,000 and taken weeks to perform, CRISPR does the same in days for less than $100 (Shwartz). With the cost of entry so low, people other than scientists can now use this technology, opening up the genome as another medium for human creativity.
CRISPR is already being used by artists. Stochastic Labs and the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California Berkeley currently have their first cohort of a new artist residency program using CRISPR (Hugo). One of the residents is famous biohacker Josiah Zayner, who created a device that reverse engineers someone’s genome based on physical traits (Zayner).
Zayner's facial recognition program (Zayner)
Clearly, CRISPR is already being actively used in art. How far, then, will this technology take us?
A possible and disturbing implication of this technology is the use of living organisms for art. In the laboratory, scientists use genetic editing to alter and study different model organisms, such as mice, rabbits, and primates. With the democratization of these technologies through CRISPR, we may see designer pets in the future. Humans have been breeding animals such as pigeons for generations, selecting for specific traits such as feather color or neck length (Gardner).
Pigeons have been bred by humans to express specific traits such as color and feather length (Gardner)
CRISPR could be used to make more precise changes to pets, choosing desirable features and costing much less time than breeding methods. In fact, there are already people who are thinking about how we can use CRISPR in the field of dog breeding. Dog breeder David Ishee is thinking of using CRISPR to fix genetic disorders that many purebred dogs possess (Greenberg). Depending how one looks at it, this technology can be either bery exciting or very frightening.
While we edit many organisms now, there will be a day when we turn it upon ourselves. Indeed, that day has already come. Chinese scientists have already used CRISPR to edit the DNA of human embryos and make the resulting children resistant to HIV (Normile). Human genome editing is more than just a possibility; it is reality and will continue to progress. Editing humans obviously brings up many ethical and legal questions. One concern is the availability of genetic editing to the public. Those who can afford it will be able to alter their germ line and make “designer babies” with desirable qualities like athleticism, intelligence, and resistance to disease. These possibilities make me think of the first chapter of classic dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Huxley)
Huxley describes a human factory where babies are grown in artificial wombs, and people are sorted into social classes by dictating development. Some babies, for example, are subjected to hypoxia during development to stunt brain development. These mentally disabled humans are part of the lower, working class (Huxley 12). With recent developments with gene editing using CRISPR, this science fiction is now possible.
Gardner, Layne. “Fancy pigeons – not your average bird.” Los Angeles Times, 27 Jan. 2015, http://graphics.latimes.com/fancy-pigeons/. Accessed 21 May 2019.
Greenberg, Alissa. “Biohacking Is a Bitch.” NEO.LIFE, 6 Sep. 2018, https://medium.com/neodotlife/david-ishee-crispr-dogs-dalmatians-d24a48d5d874. Accessed 21 May 2019.
Hugo, Kristin. “Artists to be taught about controversial gene-editing technology at California university.” Independent, 31 Dec. 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/gene-editing-technology-science-fiction-crispr-cas9-berkeley-university-california-a8706161.html. Accessed 21 May 2019.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Chatto & Windus, 1932.
Jinek, Martin, et al. “A programmable dual-RNA guided DNA endonuclease in adaptive bacterial immunity.” Science, 337, 6096, pp. 816-821.
Normile, Dennis. “CRISPR bombshell: Chinese researcher claims to have created gene-edited twins.” Science, 26 Nov. 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/crispr-bombshell-chinese-researcher-claims-have-created-gene-edited-twins. Accessed 21 May 2019.
Shwartz, Mark. “Target, delete, repair: CRISPR is a revolutionary gene-editing tool, but it’s not without risk.” Stanford Medicine, 2018, https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2018winter/CRISPR-for-gene-editing-is-revolutionary-but-it-comes-with-risks.html#. Accessed 21 May 2019.
Zayner, Josiah. “Stochastic Labs and The Infinity Edge.” Science, Art, and Beauty by Josiah Zayner, Ph.D., 2 Dec. 2014, http://www.josiahzayner.com/2014/12/stochastic-labs-and-infinity-engine.html. Accessed 21 May 2019.