The genetic engineering powerhouse called CRISPR has been around for just three years, but it's already being used in projects as diverse and ambitious as resurrecting woolly mammoths and erasing genetic diseases from family trees. While those experiments are going on in bona fide biology laboratories around the world, more modest but incredibly creative CRISPR projects are being conducted by complete science amateurs in garages.

CRISPR wasn't so much an invention as it was a discovery. The tool is basically just a component of the bacterial immune system. Scientists realized that they could use the same technique bacteria use to precisely seek and snip out bits of genetic information that viruses inject into their genomes to make precise changes to any genetic material.

Soon after professional scientists realized how easy CRISPR makes genetic engineering, amateur biologists known as biohackers realized that they could add CRISPR to their toolbox, too. Johan Sosa is one proud biohacker from San Jose, California who has already used CRISPR in some test-tube experiments. By day, he is an IT consultant and has no formal science training whatsoever.

In his spare time, however, Sosa can often be found at BioCurious, one of many community laboratories that has cropped up in recent years. He's thinking of joining a group effort there: engineering yeast to make a milk protein called casein so that one day, vegan cheese might actually taste like dairy cheese. CRISPR could make this exciting project feasible.

Other biohackers have explored completely different avenues with CRISPR. Georg Tremmel, an artist and research fellow in biological-data visualization at the University of Tokyo, is working on using the tool to "de-engineer" blue carnations commonly sold in Japan such that they turn white — the color of natural carnations. In other words, he will use fancy genetic engineering techniques to make a genetically modified organism essentially the same as its "natural" counterparts, physically and genomically. He and his colleagues hope the project will make people think about what it really means to be a GMO.

These are some of the good things happening with CRISPR. But as is the case with virtually any powerful tool, there's the potential for harm, too. An incident earlier this year in which Chinese scientists used CRISPR to genetically engineer human embryos demonstrates why the scientific community is approaching CRISPR with a lot of caution.

Most biohackers are more dorky than diabolical, however. In general, they would rather engineer beer yeast to design new brews, or make art out of rainbow bacteria. Plus, even though CRISPR makes genetic engineering easy, doing anything sophisticated enough to be dangerous would probably require equipment that isn't available to most amateur scientists.

For now, in the world of DIY science the point is, as biohacker Andreas Stürmer put it in a piece by Nature News, "It's, like, the most amazing tool ever."

Via: Nature News

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