A new generation of genetic engineering tools is giving rise to a practice that makes extreme body art look like child’s play. One of the most exciting is called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, mercifully shortened to the acronym CRISPR. This new tool may be capable of doing a lot of good, but there’s always the risk of unintended side effects. Enter the body hackers:
On Oct. 4 at a biotechnology conference in San Francisco, Zayner says he injected himself with CRISPR, the powerful gene editing technology, to biohack the muscle cells in his forearm. “Well, it’s not necessarily that I want bigger muscles,” he says. “The thing is, that this is the first time in history that we are no longer slaves to our genetics. We no longer have to live with the genetics we had when we were born. Technologies like CRISPR and other genetic modification technologies allow adult humans to modify the cells in their body.”
Whether this will actually work or not remains to be seen. (Be skeptical.) But the principle is intriguing: many tissues in our bodies are constantly being broken down and rebuilt, what biologists call catabolism and anabolism, respectively. A substance called myostatin is heavily utilized during catabolism, and plays a key role in the break down of muscle tissue. So, if the gene[s] for making myostatin was removed, your body would “forget” how to produce it. This would in turn inhibit muscle break down. Muscles would still be able to grow larger and stronger, but would be resistant to breaking down and getting smaller and weaker.
Genetically modified lab animals have been created by processes like this, giving rise to the term knock-out mice. Something similar can happen from time to time in nature via mutation. One result is a hyper-muscled breed of cattle called Belgian Blues, like the mean looking beef-cake at the top of this post.
So how does one go about precisely snipping out a gene or two on the molecular level? That is an interesting story.
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