Introducing Your Students to the Bioethics of Gene Editing with CRISPR
By Danielle R. Snowflack, Ph.D. Senior Director of Education, Edvotek Inc.
Modern biotechnology encompasses a variety of techniques that are used extensively in today’s labs, such as genetic engineering and creating recombinant DNA techniques. These advances allow scientists to directly manipulate DNA sequences, dramatically reducing the time necessary to study and improve organisms.
In the past 10 years, researchers have adapted the CRISPR-Cas9 system to directly modify DNA sequences. The development of this system as a gene editing tool is one of the most exciting biotechnology breakthroughs of the past decade.
The CRISPR-Cas9 system evolved in bacteria as a defense against viral attacks. Bacteria store short sequences of viral DNA within its genome, creating a database of enemies. The viral DNA is transcribed into a strand of RNA, which is loaded into CRISPR-associated protein 9. This enzyme, abbreviated as Cas9, cleaves DNA based on the guide RNA. When a protein-RNA complex encounters foreign DNA that matches the guide RNA sequence, they base pair, allowing Cas9 to chop the invader’s DNA into pieces, thus preventing viral infection.
Researchers engineered CRISPR-Cas9 to find any short sequence of DNA and attack it with precision, changing the DNA sequence. This technology has become a valuable part of our efforts to make our food supply hardier and more resistant to disease and advance any branch of science that involves living cells, such as biofuels and waste management. CRISPR also has the potential to improve human health, through direct modifications of mutated genes that cause human disease. For example, CRISPR-based gene therapies have successfully treated diseases that affect hemoglobin, the protein responsible for oxygen exchange in the blood.
Our core CRISPR lesson, presented at the 2022 California Science Education Conference, explored the biology behind CRISPR-Cas9 technology. We discussed the use of gene therapy to treat Cystic Fibrosis, designed guide RNAs to target a mutation in an essential gene, and modeled gene-editing with a fast and easy electrophoresis experiment (presentation and materials available online, experiment available here). One part of the lesson that really resonated with the audience was the discussion of bioethics with regards to genetic engineering using CRISPR. Bioethics is the study of the social, legal, and moral issues that surround biomedicine and biomedical research. This will become increasingly relevant for CRISPR as researchers begin to expand the use of the technology for gene therapy. Through the addition of the bioethics component, CRISPR experiments can be used to develop important critical thinking and literacy skills (specifically, CCSA.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.1 through RST.9-10.10). Below are some free resources for teaching bioethics that complement this lesson.
- A proposal for teaching bioethics in high schools using appropriate visual education by Chiedozie G. Ike & Nancy Anderson. Philos Ethics Humanit Med 13, 11 (2018).
- PBS Learning Media: Bioethics Classroom Debate.
- PBS Learning Media: Lesson Plan: Gene Editing and CRISPR: How Far Should We Go? | Above the Noise.
- “First sickle cell patient treated with CRISPR gene-editing still thriving” by Rob Stein for NPR.
- “CRISPR bombshell: Chinese researcher claims to have created gene-edited twins” by Dennis Normile for Science Insider.
About the Author
Danielle R. Snowflack, Ph.D. is the Senior Director of Education at Edvotek, Inc. Dr. Snowflack is a first-generation college student and scientist who has been dedicated to improving science education and increasing participation in the sciences. She earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Princeton University in 2012, where she studied the mechanisms of translational control in fruit flies. From 2012 to 2017, Dr. Snowflack worked at Edvotek Inc. in several roles, including as the Director of Education. In 2017, she joined the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) where she supported scientists throughout their careers through initiatives in outreach, professional development, and diversity/inclusion. In November 2019, Dr. Snowflack returned to Edvotek to continue her work in biotechnology education. While at Edvotek, she created several hands-on science experiences for educators, revitalized the teacher professional development workshop program, and created a comprehensive series of teaching resources, including videos, literature, and lesson plans.