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CRISPR as a driving force: the Model T of biotechnology

Abstract

The CRISPR system for gene editing can break, repair, and replace targeted sections of DNA. Although CRISPR gene editing has important therapeutic potential, it raises several ethical concerns. Some bioethicists worry CRISPR is a prelude to a dystopian future, while others maintain it should not be feared because it is analogous to past biotechnologies. In the scientific literature, CRISPR is often discussed as a revolutionary technology. In this paper we unpack the framing of CRISPR as a revolutionary technology and contrast it with framing it as a value-threatening biotechnology or business-as-usual. By drawing on a comparison between CRISPR and the Ford Model T, we argue CRISPR is revolutionary as a product, process, and as a force for social change. This characterization of CRISPR offers important conceptual clarity to the existing debates surrounding CRISPR. In particular, conceptualizing CRISPR as a revolutionary technology structures regulatory goals with respect to this new technology. Revolutionary technologies have characteristic patterns of implementation, entrenchment, and social impact. As such, early identification of technologies as revolutionary may help construct more nuanced and effective ethical frameworks for public policy.

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Notes

  1. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a nucleic acid construct, Cas is one of the associated families of enzymes (specifically nucleases), which can sever DNA strands in desired locations, triggering cell-repair mechanisms. By providing replacement DNA to the cell, researchers can effectively ‘edit’ genetic material. Unless the context calls for specificity, we will use ‘the CRISPR system’ to refer to the enzyme-mediated gene-editing biotechnology.

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Acknowledgments

Funding in support of this research was provided by the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy on “Impact Ethics: Making a Difference” and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant no. GLDSU/447989. We thank the team at Novel Tech Ethics, Dalhousie University for their feedback on earlier drafts.

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Mariscal, C., Petropanagos, A. CRISPR as a driving force: the Model T of biotechnology. Monash Bioeth. Rev. 34, 101–116 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40592-016-0062-2

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Keywords

  • Biotechnology
  • CRISPR
  • CRISPR/Cas9
  • Gene editing
  • Gene therapy
  • Revolutionary technology