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CRISPR: can gene-editing help nature cope with climate change?

The new technology may have missed out on this year's Nobel prize, but its potential to shape the planet is growing by the day.

Could an ingenious new technology save humanity from its greatest act of planetary self-harm? It may sound like something out of a science-fiction script. But as a new gene editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 takes rapid steps toward clinical testing in humans, some are asking if it can also help the world cope with a warming climate.

The CRISPR technique has revolutionised scientists' ability to manipulate DNA. Mice with muscular dystrophy have already been healed by the process. A trial in China plans to use it to treat sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (which can in some cases lead to cervical cancer). Designer babies, a cure for cancer and an answer to antibiotic resistance are all possible future outcomes, scientists say. But there is another possible future use - it could bring extinct animals back from the dead.

The acronymn stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspace Short Palindromic Repeats”, which is a description of the defining feature of a system that bacteria use to fight infection. Kind of like the natural world’s version of cut-copy-and-paste, a molecule guides a protein, called Cas9, to the targeted gene sequence in a strand of DNA, then snips the sequence out. By repurposing this system for use in plants, animals and humans, scientists are now able to edit genes faster and more efficiently than ever before. 

CRISPR also holds the potential to pass these genetic changes on down through the generations and make them permanent. As this excellent RadioLab podcast episode explains, the technology is capable of performing what it known as a "gene drive". This is when scientists make sure an altered gene is inherited at a higher rate than through natural reproduction alone

It can thus be used to create - or wipe out - entire features from a species. Want modified mosquitos that are incapable of carrying malaria to out-breed their natural cousins? Scientists have already demonstrated this is possible in the lab. 

So what are the downsides? Imagine a scenario where blue-eyed designer babies are given gene drives, and you can start to see some of the ethical issues involved. Not to mention the risks of accidentally mutating non-target genes, or of manipulated organisms developing evolutionary resistance, or the unforeseen impacts that removing one species’ genetic trait might have on the rest of an ecosystem. 

Yet while the risks of deploying CRISPR are very real, so too are the risks posed to the natural world by climate change. The burning of fossil fuels is pushing up global temperatures and bringing about a mass extinction event that will have disastrous consequences for biodiversity - not to mention human food chains.

Many species are already evolving on their own: the skulls of alpine chipmunks have changed shape due to climate pressure, while the genetics of pink salmon are adapting to favour earlier migrations. But not all will be able to successfully adapt. According to the Living Planet Index, the world will lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020.

Some scientists are starting to think that CRISPR-Cas9 could perhaps help stave off this collapse - just as we rely on traditional engineering to provide a new, clean-energy infrastructures, so we might use bio-engineering to build ecosystems capable of withstanding more volatile weather and warmer seas.

Coral reefs, for instance, could be saved from rising sea temperatures by gene editing, says the molecular biologist Rachel Levin.

Warming oceans are already resulting in a breakdown of the symbiotic union between coral animals and the billions of photosynthetic microbes called Symbiodinium that inhabit them and make their food. When its too warm for the Symbiodinium to photosynthesize, the coral expel them from its system. However, if they don’t return, the coral host will eventually die.

Writing in Frontiers of Microbiology, Levin proposes using CRISPR to prevent this breakdown. Rare strains of Symbiodinium can survive in warmer waters, and the relevant genes could be copied and transplanted into the Symbiodinium strains from temperate regions.

Crops for human consumption could also benefit from the same process. The genes from wild tomatoes that can thrive on shorter daylight hours could be transplanted into commercial varieties, plant scientist Professor Zach Lippman told The Cold Spring Harbour laboratory. This means the latter could then continue to be grown successfully in cooler, northern latitudes.

The similarities with more conventionally genetically modified organisms (GMOS) are striking here - but so are the differences. GMOs introduce entirely foreign DNA sequences from other organisms to create variants that would not be found in nature, whereas CRISPR’s gene-editing is more akin to conventional breeding methods.

“We’re not making hugely mutant things,” Levin told the Smithsonian Magazine, of the gene editing plans for coral. “All we’re trying to do is give them an extra copy of a gene they already have to help them out.”

The technology clearly still has a long way to go before it is effective in tackling the impacts of climate change on any kind of scale. It even missed out on this year’s round of Nobel prize - pipped by research into the mechanisms behind sleep rhythms.

But if evolution’s story is one of relentless adaptability, then CRISPR may just be humanity’s opportunity to give a nature a fighting chance.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia