Being Excited About Failure – Article by Martin van der Kroon

Being Excited About Failure – Article by Martin van der Kroon

Martin van der Kroon

The much hyped CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technique often explained as being the ‘DNA scissors’ or the ‘cut and paste’ technique, has had a setback, and this has me excited.

CRISPR-Cas9 has has the scientific community, and in particular those involved in research and development of genome editing, raving over the roughly past 3 years. It is hailed as a cheap and fast way to edit genomes with great accuracy compared to other genome-editing techniques, and this is true. Now however, researchers have found CRISPR-Cas9 to have some annoying side-effects. The side-effects were found in mice who had their blindness corrected but also caused mutations in other parts of the DNA sequence, roughly 1500 mutations. It is unknown what the consequences of the mutations are at this moment.

“Why am I excited about this setback?” you might ask.

Well, I think this setback will focus researchers’ attention toward understanding​ and investigating not only why CRISPR-Cas9 is having these side-effects of unintentional mutations, but also toward improving the technique. Researchers most likely will try to understand the effects each unintentional mutation might have, and in the process learn a great deal about other strands of DNA.

Not only this, but the mutations themselves might prove invaluable. If the mice suddenly exhibit some type of negative side-effect, a genetic disease for example, it becomes much easier than usual to figure which DNA is possibly responsible, as it will likely be limited to the roughly 1500 mutations, which is a lot easier than sifting through hundreds of thousands of “normal” DNA. Of course, the mutations may also result in unexpected positive effects. The chances that these will be mind-reading mice, or able to control metal, or that they will suddenly form a biker gang, will be slim, unfortunately.

Even in the worst case scenario that CRISPR-Cas9 turns out to be unsuitable to edit genomes safely without side-effects, it has already been tremendously valuable. Not only have an enormous number of experiments been done since its introduction, genome editing is enjoying an unprecedented level of public exposure. It has furthermore spurred all manner of debates surrounding genome editing and genetic manipulation, for example the ethical side of it. 

To quote John Dewey, who succinctly summed it up: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

I suppose the moral of this article is to stay optimistic, critical, and willing to accept critique as it can be a valuable asset towards improvement, whether in science, politics, or your personal life.

Martin van der Kroon is the Director of Recruitment for the U.S. Transhumanist Party.

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