One Giant Leap Too Far, Why CRISPR is in the News

The title reads: “Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.”

From the outset this article in July’s Wired magazine was in sensationalist territory. Nothing in science is ever easy. No one “breakthrough” can ever remake our complex biological world.

Many publications regularly over-step with scientific claims, but this particular story on CRISPR technology has triggered a tidal wave of criticism.

Trending now on Twitter is the hashtag #crisprfacts, a crowd-sourced parody of claims the author makes (think Chuck Norris as a scientific tool). In the article the author positions CRISPR as the future of designer baby engineering. Meanwhile #crisprfacts reveals it’s at once the “dark matter of the universe” and the secret to understanding Donald Trump’s hair.

Everyone loves to get silly, but what’s the story behind the story? CRISPR/Cas9 is a fantastic biological tool. It takes a far more targeted approach to gene editing than traditional knockout techniques. Clearly, being able to alter specific genes has a wide range of important applications. Huntington’s disease, for example, is caused by a single mutation. What if we could reverse that?

Where the author went wrong was leaping from Petri dish to person. It’s arguably the most common mistake in science communications. Achieving something in vivo (within a live organism) is many years more advanced and far more complicated than anything done on gel. For this reason, most in vitro techniques or breakthroughs never make it to the clinic (funding issues aside).

The author of the WIRED article is receiving a disproportionately grand critique. Sure, CRISPR technology was oversold; it’s not yet a standard tool in academic labs. The first proof-of-concept paper was published as recently as 2012 and these technologies take time to evolve. Without the world’s smartest scientists on the case, “everyday” gene editing is not going to occur. Further challenges include intellectual property restrictions, and a poor understanding of possible off-target effects.

However, the communications leap from in vitro to in vivo is made everyday. Science gains the most attention when it directly affects humans. As with all other modern news media, many of these stories rely on sensationalist claims – that’s what gets clicks and views. So have a laugh at #crisprfacts, but remember that it’s not a one-off incident. It’s an editorial standard that we encourage by clicking on hyped-up headlines.