My Life Needs Editing

“My life needs editing.” —Mort Sahl

Chester “Trip” Buckenmaier III, MD, COL (ret.), MC, USA

My commute to work in the Washington, DC, area is hell, to put it mildly. According to U.S. News and World Report, in 2015, Washington area drivers spent 75 hours on average in traffic, second only to Los Angeles drivers who averaged 81. I resemble this statistic and can testify that I spend entirely too much time doing an automobile version of a slow conga line to and from work. Needless to say, I have plenty of time to kill during my mind-numbing commute, and I have developed numerous strategies to pass the time at 10-15 miles an hour. My best idea for surviving the battle of the Beltway commute is the digestion of audiobooks, which has allowed me to consume numerous biographies and historical works, lots of literary art from Wendell Berry, and a good measure of science fiction (a hedonistic weakness since it is light on science but heavy on fiction). Between books I like to catch up on Radiolab (, a favorite podcast dealing with science topics from a human interest perspective.

A recent topic concerned CRISPR which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, a title even the most starched lab coated scientist would find boring. I preferred Radiolab’s description of CRISPR as “ninja-assassin-meets-DNA-editing-tool” which is cool and worthy of killing some driving time with. 

For those readers, like myself, who have heard of CRISPR but really did not understand what all the fuss is about, indulge me for a brief (ridiculously oversimplified) description. Francisco Mojica, of the University of Alicante, Spain, was the first researcher to describe interesting bacterial genes with common repeating sequences and interspaced viral gene sequences in between. This confused scientists, who wondered why a bacterium genome would be harboring viral DNA? Dr. Mojica correctly theorized that this area of the bacterial genome represented an adaptive immune system against viral attackers. If you are a bacterium, viruses are Enemy No. 1. If a bacterium survived a viral attack it would store a small snippet of the viral DNA in its CRISPR region for later attacks. This allowed the bacterium to transcribe short RNA sequences (CRISPR RNAs) that contain a special protein (Cas9) to cut DNA and disrupt it. In a sense these CRISPR RNAs are like guided missiles that will seek out invading viral DNA, bind to it, and cleave it, thus destroying the attacking virus. Feng Zhang, a Broad Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist, developed the first method to use the CRISPR-Cas9 system to cut DNA at specific spots and insert new DNA in the genome of mouse and human cells. In short, CRISPR is akin to the editing function of your word processing software allowing scientists to edit genetic information efficiently and inexpensively. Why should you care?

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  1. John Barwise MD says:

    Editing out harmful genes to help individuals such as Sickle cell disease is a holy grail for some. The fear of untoward effects downstream remind us of Dr Moreau’s island. Inherent Darwinian gene modification already occurs as a justification for us to do this in a more timely fashion. Patent’s/ownership of gene modification, Religious objections to fetal gene tissue, shows us we are in for a necessary regulation of the field of genetic sciences. The future is already here we will have to embrace it and make sure we have adequate moral oversight of the outcomes.

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