Nessa Carey

About 50 years ago, scientists developed techniques for altering the genome of living organisms.  We've achieved a huge amount with these technologies and their descendants, but the methods were always relatively cumbersome and slow.  It as also really difficult to apply them to unusual species.

In 2012, researchers created a new technology called gene editing.  They re-engineered a defence system that had evolved to protect bacteria from repeated attack by viruses.  In its new form, this system had amazing capabilities.  It could change the DNA of any species with a speed, accuracy, precision and ease never before developed.  Once the change is made, it persists in all daughter cells.

What organism would you like to alter?  Pig, monkey, dog, mosquito,wheat, salamander, ant?  Yep, all feasible and all done.  Human?  No reason why not, and has probably already happened in China.  A human and all their children, grandchildren and future descendants - in theory, absolutely.

But the very ease of gene editing is worrying some observers.  It's so simple to use that there is little to stop the average citizen from doing it, if they really want to.   Better food, transplant organs from pigs, eradication of invasive species, a cure for sickle cell disease and changing the wing patterns of butterflies. 

All this plus lawyers getting rich in the fight over who owns the technology, and some polite but pointed jockeying for the Nobel Prize.  It's all here.