by David Green (@GradDavid_Green)
Lately, an article posted in the Daily Mail has been making its way through the social media spheres. Titled “Criminals could manipulate their own DNA to avoid detection on police databases with £150 online gene repair kits” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5696383/Criminals-manipulate-DNA-avoid-detection-police-databases.html), the article has been met with a mix of concern from the public and well-deserved derision from the scientific community. While I think it is important that ethical concerns of new scientific discoveries are discussed among everyone, not only scientists, this is increasingly difficult with the existence of these kinds of articles written to incite emotion instead of to inform. So why is it so ridiculous that CRISPRs could be used to create a class of forensic invisible criminals?
To answer this question, we must first discuss what is a CRISPR? CRISPRs are an element of a bacterial antiviral defense system that can target and cut DNA at specific sites. When used to target pieces of DNA in other organisms, the cell will attempt to repair the break in their DNA, this repair mechanism runs the risk of causing an error by inducing a mutation at the site where the CRISPR cut the DNA. Realizing that this would be incredibly useful for both research and medicinal purposes, scientists have taken this natural system from bacteria and isolated it so that we can use it across many different organisms, including humans! This discovery has been significantly impactful and there is no doubt that a Nobel Prize is forthcoming for its discovery. While CRISPRs can manipulate DNA, there are major hurdles that would make such a task very difficult.
It is true that CRISPRS can edit the DNA of an individual cell, however what the article obfuscates is that there are serious challenges that would make using such a technique to cover up crime near impossible. For one, the number of cells that an individual would have to alter to successfully dodge forensic scientists is massive. Our body is composed of trillions of cells, even focusing on the most likely cells to leave behind on a crime scene; skin, blood ect the task would be daunting. The most likely solution would be to target the stem cell populations, groups of cells whose role is to divide and replace cells as they die. Our would-be super criminal would have to alter the DNA in stem cell populations across their entire body. Now, if you can get CRISPR system into a cell it can perform the task. However, it is incredibly difficult to get large molecules such as the machinery to run the CRISPR system into a cell. It is in fact one of the major challenges to the use of the system. The second major problem requires an understanding of how forensic scientists identify individuals. Forensic scientists do not check a single site of the genome and check for similarities, they look at hundreds. To effectively cloak an individual, it would require a stunning number of mutations, to a level that would significantly risk generating diseases (and even more unlikely Spider-Man). It is more likely that an enterprising thief would unintentionally give themselves cancer before successfully cloaking their DNA
Articles like the one in the Daily Mail are frustrating not only because they sensationalize scientific discoveries, but also because they waste valuable opportunities to engage with real issues that arise with these technologies. There are real ethical considerations for CRISPR technology, they unlock the potential to significantly tailor an individual’s DNA, if not in an adults, then in embryos. These are real ethical concerns that need to be discussed and boundaries need to be set before they are tested. These boundaries must not only be formed by the scientific community, but also with input from all members of the population. It makes it our responsibility as part of this system to make sure that we set the record straight and not only call out sensational articles like this one, but also to engage and explain these technologies and their uses as well.