Gene editing CRISPR has found its way to Nantucket, Massachusetts. Adrift in the waters of the Atlantic, off the coast of Massachusetts, the island of Nantucket has become a breeding ground for a particularly nasty infectious disease, Lyme. The bacteria spread is so prevalent that it is estimated around 50% of those who have grown up on the Island have been exposed at least once in their lifetime. With infection rates rising nearly 67% since 2010, according to the CDC. Residents looking for a solution have been brought into an ambitious new project Mice Against Ticks.
Using Gene Editing CRISPR and Rodents to fight a Plague
Using gene editing with a little help from CRISPR scientists have presented a possible solution. The project aims to tackle the problem of the disease’s prevalence by spurning the evolution of white-footed mice through genetic manipulation. The desired autoimmune trait is already present in a limited quantity of the wild mice currently living on the island. What the research team means to do is improve the ratio of immunity by upping the number of mice with the desired trait through the means of both selective breeding and genetic editing. They will do this by engineering the mice in a lab and releasing a vast number of them into the wild. Sounds like a dirty job.
Considerations in Tampering with Nature using gene editing CRISPR
This methodology does not come without careful consideration however, as Kevin Esvelt, one of the projects leads illustrates. In a public address to the residents of the island, he states, “You can decline to be affected by our work.” A gesture that ultimately will give the final consent to the citizens of the island. The conversation; an ongoing one as a series of town hall meetings are being conducted while the scientists continue to collect data and run small scale trials.
It’s a potentially controversial plan of action as Enid Haller, executive director of the Lyme Center of nearby Martha’s Vineyard explains “I’m torn about it. Part of me feels like it might be a good answer to bring the tick population down. I think it would probably make a dent. For me to embrace it, I’d want to know if tampering with nature that way long-term is safe.” and as far as science is concerned the fear is a valid one as no good predictive models for the impact of such an experiment is established.
In order to address some of the concerns of potential ecological impact building a model to understand how the environment would be affected is a necessity and might be a big deal in setting future precedence. Several privately-owned islands near the Nantucket area have volunteered to be part of several trial runs of the project. The test will include releasing a large number of both genetically edited mice as well as non-edited mice as a control test. Understanding how both the genetically edited population and non-edited population behave over time will be an important data set to look at as far as bringing the project to a larger scale.
Looking Towards the Future with Gene editing CRISPR
This particular project with its ecological implications will be an important one to watch going into the future. Not only could it practically solved the spread of a harmful disease, but could also set up a better understanding of how to best tackle complex environmental problems in the future through both gene-editing and selective breeding. These technologies are going to be put to use in the future in one way or another, understanding them to a degree of certainty is going to be of paramount importance and this project looks to be at the forefront of breaking that ground.