The gene-editing of DNA inside living cells is considered by many to be the preeminent technological breakthrough of the new millennium. Researchers in medicine and agriculture have rapidly adopted it as a technique for discovering cell and organism functions. But its commercial prospects are much more complicated.
Gene-editing has many potential uses. These include altering cells to treat human disease, altering crops and livestock for breeding and agriculture. Furthermore, in a move that has been widely criticised, Chinese researcher He Jiankui claims to have edited human babies to resist HIV by altering a gene called CCR5.
For most commercial applications gene-editing’s appeal is simplicity and precision: it alters genomes at precise sites and without inserting foreign DNA. This why, in popular articles, gene-editing is often referred to as ‘tweaking’.
The tweaking narrative, however, is an assumption and not an established fact. And it recently suffered a large dent.