In an age where engineering advancements are producing remarkable technologies, one is amazed at the power of human innovation. However astonishing these technical advancements are, one should not forget the unshakable truth of the Holy Qur’an, which affirms that despite the wondrous capability of humans to engineer, all these inventions pale in significance compared to the creation of God, the Ultimate Creator.
“Blessed be Allah, the Best of Creators”1
The field of biotechnology is built upon this very principle, that the greatest innovations are inherent within nature, and it is only a matter of identifying and harnessing the power of organisms for humans to use. The challenge is in finding a system which can be perfectly employed. The complexities that are found even in microorganisms such as bacteria are so extensive, that it was only in the 20th century that scientists began to understand how beneficial they could be to humans.
It was in 1928 that scientists discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic. Antibiotics are chemicals produced by bacteria and fungi to fight off other microorganisms. Their discovery transformed medicine and led to the rapid reduction of infectious diseases across the world, saving millions of lives. Later, scientists discovered that due to the relative simplicity of these microorganisms in comparison to animals and plants, bacterial genes could be easily modified or changed, in a process known as ‘recombination.’ This discovery was not only instrumental in understanding how DNA works, but opened the doors to the field of genetic engineering. Today, many medical treatments are based upon such technology.
For example, patients suffering from diabetes have very high levels of sugar in their blood because they are deficient in the hormone insulin. In order to treat diabetes, patients are given injections of insulin. Have you ever considered where insulin is made? Instead of going through the complexities of synthesising insulin, scientists simply take the insulin gene and recombine it into bacterial DNA. These bacteria then make large quantities of the hormone which can be collected. Hence, bacteria can act as remarkable genetic factories, with the ability to churn out whichever protein is inserted into their DNA. Many other drugs are produced in a similar way, by genetically modifying bacteria.
This great capability to harness the power of microorganisms makes one grateful to the beneficence of The Gracious God. The intricacies of bacteria are greater than even the most complex of human creations and God has permitted humans to benefit from them.
“And He Has Subjected to You Whatsoever is in the Heavens and Whatsoever is in the Earth: All This is From Him. In That Surely are Signs For a People Who Reflect.”2
Over decades, the field of genetic engineering has progressed steadily and has led to the production of genetically modified plants, insects and even animals such as mice, which are used to study models of human diseases. However, since these animals are more complex than bacteria, their production has proven difficult, time consuming and expensive.3 This has limited production only to those scientific or industrial labs which house special facilities and have ample resources.4 Today however, we are amidst a revolution that is making gene editing a simple and routine process, which is being adopted in laboratories across the world.
While there are multiple new gene editing techniques being developed, the most popular one is known as CRISPR (pronounced as crisper, short for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). CRISPR-Cas (Cas stands for CRISPR-Associated protein) was originally discovered in the 1980s in bacteria but its function was not understood at the time.5 In the early 2000s, researchers found that CRISPR serves as an immune defence system in bacteria, and only recently has its potential for gene editing been explored.6 How does CRISPR work and how is it used for gene manipulation?
Bacteria, like all organisms, face a real threat from invasive viruses. However, bacteria are vulnerable as they are single-celled and so do not have any special cells dedicated to recognising and fighting off invaders, unlike animals, who have white blood cells and other immune cells. One of the ways bacteria defend themselves against viruses is by having short copies of different viral genes within their own DNA, which are known as CRISPR.2 The CRISPR genes are always on surveillance duty. When a bacteria is attacked by a virus, the genes match up to the viral DNA that has entered into the bacteria. The Cas protein is then able to cut the foreign DNA at the specific sites where there is a match between the viral DNA and the bacterial viral DNA copy, essentially destroying the invading virus.7Interestingly, when exposed to new viruses, bacteria can expand their library of CRISPR genes and build up their arsenal of recognising future viruses.8
Scientists have discovered that, instead of a viral gene, a portion of any other gene can also be placed into the CRISPR library in the bacterial DNA. Once a cell encounters that specific gene again, the CRISPR-Cas system lines up its own copy of the DNA with the foreign DNA and cuts the foreign DNA precisely, enabling the gene to be removed and another gene to be put in its place.9 From this, the altered foreign DNA can be transferred into different types of cells in a wide variety of organisms, ranging from insects to plants and even to human cells.10,11It is popular because of its simplicity, low cost and high efficiency. For this very reason, CRISPR is revolutionising the field by “democratising gene editing”, i.e., making gene editing possible in ordinary scientific laboratories.12
Scientists from multiple fields are using CRISPR to add or remove genes, to study the role of specific mutations and to develop animal models to see how diseases are inherited.1314 Moreover, CRISPR is becoming a highly attractive tool because it offers the potential to correct genetic disorders and may even be used as a gene therapy in humans to replace faulty genes.15 Yet, this great breakthrough is not without controversy.
The scientific community was both intrigued and startled in April 2015, when Chinese scientists used CRISPR on human embryos collected from fertility clinics. The researchers used the gene-editing tool to alter the gene responsible for causing a blood disorder known as β-Thalassemia. The scientists were able to successfully alter the harmful mutation in a subset of the embryos but found that some complications, such as off-target effects (i.e., other genes being altered), also occurred.16 Although the embryos they used were not able to develop into live births, their work nonetheless raised ethical concerns regarding CRISPR technology.
Similarly, in October 2015, scientists used CRISPR to successfully make a genetically altered line of mosquitoes resistant to the carriage of the malaria parasite.17 Their aim was to show that one possible way of reducing the incidence of malaria would be to release such genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment. These mosquitoes would replicate and spread across a region, coming to dominate the mosquito population and reducing the spread of malaria. Although their experiment was only meant to illustrate that such gene editing was easily possible, the effects of manipulating an entire insect population could have catastrophic and unforeseen consequences within the ecosystem.
As CRISPR use expands, such controversial experimenting will continue. To discuss the ethical concerns, an international panel of scientists held a summit in Washington, D.C., in December 2015. They focused primarily on how gene editing should be used in humans and raised important questions.18 Would the gene-editing tool be used in humans only to return dysfunctional genes to a functioning, healthy state, or would it be used to alter characteristics based on fashion and preference? What regulations and safety standards should be employed before hospitals and clinics begin to offer gene editing therapy to parents? The summit was an important step, but international laws and standards have yet to be enacted.19 Remarkably, the Holy Qur’an provided great insight into this modern concern 1400 years ago:
“‘And assuredly I (Satan) will lead them astray and assuredly I will excite in them vain desires…and assuredly I will incite them and they will alter Allah’s creation.’ And he who takes Satan for a friend beside Allah has certainly suffered a manifest loss.”20
The second Khalifah of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmadra, has expounded on this verse by stating that the meaning of ‘altering Allah’s creation’ can refer to deforming or disfiguring the body of a young child and also to turning to an evil use that which God has created for a good purpose.21
Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh (fourth spiritual head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community), further explained that this verse is an emphatic prophecy which was fulfilled with the introduction of genetic engineering, something inconceivable when the Holy Qur’an was revealed. Moreover, he explained that gene editing and similar technologies should only be used to protect the creation of God.22 That is, they should only be used to change a diseased state to a healthy state. If they are used to alter creation by bringing about unnatural innovations, then it could have catastrophic effects. Such a misuse of this technology would be against the teachings of God and would instead be motivated by Satan who stirs “vain desires” in man.23
Gene editing using CRISPR beautifully harnesses the natural processes within bacteria created by God. It has immense potential to reduce suffering throughout the world and benefit mankind. Lasting treatments for incurable genetic diseases could finally be produced, thus improving the lives of millions of people. With this new wave of gene editing, it is the responsibility of the public and scientists alike to ensure that laws and regulations on this matter adopt the divine guidance given by God, the Ultimate Creator. Only then can we truly benefit from such technologies and be truly grateful to God and become recipients of His blessings.
- The Holy Qur’an, 23:15.
- The Holy Qur’an, 45:14.
- Hsu, Patrick D., Eric S. Lander, and Feng Zhang. “Development And Applications of CRISPR-Cas9 for Genome Engineering.” Cell 157, no. 6 (2014): 1262–78. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.05.010.
- Sander, Jeffry D., and J. Keith Joung. “CRISPR-Cas Systems for Editing, Regulating and Targeting Genomes.” Nature Biotechnology 32, no. 4 (February 2014): 347–55. doi:10.1038/nbt.2842.
- Doudna, J. A., and E. Charpentier. “The New Frontier of Genome Engineering with CRISPR-Cas9.” Science 346, no. 6213 (2014): 1258096–96. doi:10.1126/science.1258096.
- Sander and Joung, “Crispr-Cas Systems.”
- Doudna and Charpentier, “The New Frontier of Genome Engineering.”
- Yin, Hao, Wen Xue, Sidi Chen, Roman L. Bogorad, Eric Benedetti, Markus Grompe, Victor Koteliansky, Phillip A. Sharp, Tyler Jacks, and Daniel G. Anderson. “Genome Editing with Cas9 in Adult Mice Corrects a Disease Mutation and Phenotype.” Nature Biotechnology 32, no. 6 (2014): 551–53. doi:10.1038/nbt.2884.
- Ledford, Heidi. “CRISPR: Gene Editing Is Just the Beginning.” Nature 531, no. 7593 (July 2016): 156–59. doi:10.1038/531156a.
- Hsu, Lander, and Zhang, “Development and Applications of CRISPR-Cas.”
- Doudna and Charpentier, “The New Frontier of Genome Engineering.”
- Liang, Puping, Yanwen Xu, Xiya Zhang, Chenhui Ding, Rui Huang, Zhen Zhang, Jie Lv, et al. “CRISPR/Cas9-Mediated Gene Editing in Human Tripronuclear Zygotes.” Protein & Cell 6, no. 5 (2015): 363–72. doi:10.1007/s13238-015-0153-5.
- Gantz, Valentino M., Nijole Jasinskiene, Olga Tatarenkova, Aniko Fazekas, Vanessa M. Macias, Ethan Bier, and Anthony A. James. “Highly Efficient Cas9-Mediated Gene Drive for Population Modification of the Malaria Vector Mosquito Anopheles Stephensi.” Proceedings Of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 49 (2015). doi:10.1073/pnas.1521077112.
- Wade, Nicholas. “Scientists Seek Moratorium on Edits to Human Genome That Could Be Inherited.” The New York Times, December 4, 2015 p. A1. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/science/crispr-cas9-human-genome-editing-moratorium.html?_r=0.
- Wade, “Scientists Seek Moratorium.”
- The Holy Qur’an, 4:120.
- The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary (Islamabad: Islam International Publications, 1988), 564.
- Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Urdu Translation, Introduction of Chapters and Brief Explanatory Notes of The Holy Qur’an (Islamabad: Islam International Publications, 2000), 154 (footnote).
- Ahmad, Urdu Translation.