What is gene editing?

Interview with Dr. William M Muir, Biotechnologist at Purdue University


Gene Editing

Gene editing is when a scientist makes a tiny, controlled change in the DNA of a living organism. The simplest way to envision this process is to imagine editing a giant manuscript. You flip through the hundreds of pages until you reach the once sentence you wish to alter, and then carefully change a single word. This creates only a tiny change in an enormously complex word document or, in this case, genome.

GMOs, genetically modified organism (or genetically engineered, as they are commonly called in the science world), are the result of tweaking the DNA of a living organism. Gene editing is used for many purposes, one of which is for the creation of GMOs. There are many different, other methods to produce GMOs, however. CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a name we commonly hear in association with gene editing. CRISPR is simply one method, or tool, of gene editing.


Today, gene editing is happening not just in the United States, but around the world. In the United States, gene editing is practiced on both plants and animals to improve animal welfare, increase productivity or decrease the amount of inputs. An example of ongoing work on gene editing in animals is in the case of pigs. Pigs are susceptible to an infection called Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). If even one case of PRRS is found in a group of pigs, the entire population must be euthanized to prevent any potential spread. Gene editing techniques have managed to produce pigs that are resilient to this disease, marking a significant improvement in animal welfare and preventing great waste.

Elements of gene editing are overseen by federal agencies. No gene editing is being conducted on human beings in the United States. Gene editing in humans raises a large host of ethical concerns, which are being discussed carefully and attentively by ethicists and concerned parties. There is potential to use gene editing to improve human health, an option that is being explored by researchers and scientists.