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CRISPR Has a Terrible Name

By April 18, 2017No Comments

Imagine this: What if scientists had a tool that allowed them to edit genes directly, altering their underlying DNA? The science-fictional applications, like designer babies or Frankensteined organisms, would be obvious—although ethical and legal rules in science and medicine might prevent such uses. Immediate applications would be more mundane, but also more significant: understanding and treating disease, manufacturing new types of pharmaceuticals, and engineering more resilient foods, for starters.

There’s no need to imagine, actually. Such a tool does exist, and scientists have been refining it over the last decade or so. But despite massive hype in the science and general press, it probably remains unfamiliar or misunderstood to many people, especially those who don’t follow science news regularly. The reason might have to do with its terrible branding.

The gene-editing tool is called CRISPR, an acronym for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. More confusingly, the strands of DNA called CRISPR have been around for billions of years. Bacteria use CRISPR to slice out portions of an attacking virus, storing them in their own DNA for later defense. Recently, scientists found a way to harness this mechanism for genetic inspection and editing. Unlike earlier gene-editing techniques, CRISPR is faster, cheaper, and more reliable.

Things get more confusing. CRISPR (the research apparatus, not the biological technique it adapts) is but a nickname; the tool’s proper name is CRISPR-Cas9. Cas9 is the “molecular scissors”—an enzyme that does the cutting. A guide RNA (gRNA) helps Cas9 find the desired gene to cut. The engineering innovation in CRISPR (the tool, not the DNA strands themselves) involved synthesizing the guide RNA so that geneticists could make specific genetic cuts and pastes. Modifications of CRISPR also allow scientists to activate, suppress, or control those genes.

It’s a lot to take in. And no surprise, since genetics is a specialized field. It requires expert knowledge and precise terminology, much of which seems esoteric to outsiders. Though alienating for ordinary folk, expert terminology is useful and necessary. It helps specialists interact with clarity and efficiency.

But in science today, specialist language bleeds into the public interest. Gene-editing isn’t just an impressive new practice, but also one with implications for humanity at large. The applications are so varied, from gene identification for medical research to the actual, if technically illicit, manufacture of alien organisms. The commercial and legal stakes are high, too. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in CRISPR-driven biotech businesses, and the technology has been subject to a bitter patent dispute between the research institutions that supported its development.

Given its sweeping impact on the future of biotech, one might hope all informed citizens would have a basic understanding of what CRISPR is and what it does. But conveying such knowledge becomes difficult when the setup is so onerous and unwelcoming. Coverage of CRISPR is frequent, thanks to its rapid evolution and application. But every article about CRISPR must start by laboriously explaining what it is, before moving on to the new news about it.

It’s name should bear a lot of the blame. CRISPR is an acronym. The unwieldy esotericism of “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” is obvious. Experts use acronyms to make it easier to reference technical terms. They work even better when truly acronymous—that is, pronounced as a word rather than as a series of initials.

But once transformed into words, acronyms obscure more than they reveal. From “honey” to “Jenny” to “CRISPR,” nicknames imply familiarity and intimacy. For that familiarity to be valid, the speaker must have earned the right to use the nickname. In the case of CRISPR, that’s unlikely the case for most people who utter, read, or type it. That’s nothing new for technical and medical acronyms, of course. How many people have heard of—or been administered—a PET scan, CAT scan, or MRI, without knowing what those letters stand for or what they mean?

CRISPR is a particularly egregious example. PET and CAT scans might justify their acronymous, consumer-facing names thanks to those terms’ association with domestic animals—a gentle comfort for a strange test run in a claustrophobic tube. But CRISPR has a harder time squaring gene editing with a name that sounds like it names a drawer in the refrigerator, or a breakfast cereal.

In fact, there’s already a Snickers Crisper candy bar (no relation), which adds crunchy rice to that treat’s trademark peanuts, nougat, and caramel. And a German-language CRISPR explainer video starts by forgiving the viewer for thinking that it might be a cereal bar. At first, those comparisons might seem like a cute way to apologize for scientific dorkship. But perhaps the name for a gene editor should telegraph more gravitas than a trip to the vending machine—future CRISPR-facilitated, designer foods notwithstanding.

CRISPR makes things worse by conflating CRISPR the DNA strands with CRISPR-Cas9, the DNA-and-gRNA duo—which is still something distinct from the biotechnical apparatus that makes use of the two together to evaluate and alter individual genes. Calling a gene-editing mechanism CRISPR is a little like calling your refrigerator Maggie because your wife Margaret stores produce from her garden in its crisper drawer. In short, CRISPR is a terrible name that does a massive disservice to a revolutionary biotechnology.

How to name and explain scientific esoterica is a problem normally relegated to science communications and journalism. Once the science is done, it’s up to the rest of us to make sense of it. But there’s reason to see the branding of CRISPR and other esoteric but influential technologies as a first-principles aspect of scientific research and publishing. When scientists stop describing the natural world and begin altering it, then they have a responsibility to help facilitate the public’s understanding of how their technologies work.

Admittedly, it’s a problem that plagues all the sciences as they move from pure to applied. But biotechnological innovation at the cellular or chromosomal level is particularly challenging to make comprehensible to the general public, because its operation and impact take place in hiding. Furthermore, unlike pharmaceuticals, medical devices, or even nanotech equipment, the family of technologies known as CRISPR operate in an unfamiliar, almost alien way.

Rather than inserting foreign media or apparatuses into an organism, CRISPR makes the organism itself do the work on the nucleotides themselves. It’s more like genetic puppeteering than genetic editing. Ideally, the public names for methods and systems built atop CRISPR would telegraph their uses through clearly named and defined functions of particular kinds of Cas9-guided genetic manipulations.

One model for improving biotechnical branding comes from standards organizations. After the industrial revolution, the rise of interchangeable tools and parts both demanded and facilitated standardization. Thanks to the increased precision of machining, it was possible to define parts at a granular level—the sizes and thread patterns of screws, bolts, and nuts, for example. Over time, standards bodies developed to guide and manage the creation of technologies so that they would interoperate. While public communication wasn’t a primary goal of standards organizations, their impact couldn’t help but embrace public interest and public knowledge, particularly as the technologies they sought to influence became more universal, and thereby more public. For example, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) coordinates international postal policies, relieving individual nations of the burden of negotiating individual treaties.

Computing is hardly a great model industry for clearly naming and explaining its apparatuses to the public. But information technology does offer a possible precedent for biotech, thanks to its widespread embrace of standards bodies as intermediaries between technical implementation and public use. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops standards for the web, for example, including the operation of HTML and CSS. The W3C standards are often adopted (or ignored) by the tech industry, but admittedly, its underlying systems remain largely invisible and unknown to the general public.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), by contrast, is a professional association for electrical engineering that operates an internal standards association. IEEE standards not only help computer engineers develop interoperable products, but also facilitates the branding and marketing of those standards to the general public. The IEEE 802.3 standard, for example, is better known as Ethernet, a local-networking technology. Anyone who has purchased a wireless router may have encountered IEEE 802.11, the wireless networking specification known as Wi-Fi. Or take the near-range wireless communication method known as Bluetooth. While originally invented (and, aptly, named) by the Swedish telecom company Ericsson, it was standardized as IEEE 802.15.1, although it is now managed by a separate standards body.

To be sure, names like Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth do obscure the underlying operation of those technologies. But that’s a matter for experts. In exchange, the public gets an abstraction that does a pretty good job naming and distinguishing three otherwise similar data networking technologies.

Standards organizations in health care and biotech do exist, but they are mostly focused on data interoperability. One exception is the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC). It operates a Standards Development Organization (SDO), which develops and manages standards for biomaterials. Last year, ATCC licensed the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, with an eye toward standardization. But ATCC is mostly interested in using CRISPR to generate standardized cell lines, rather than to help standardize the operation and use of the CRISPR technologies as such. And with problems arising—from implementation errors to potentially dangerous, engineered viruses—even scientists are beginning to recognize the downsides of a CRISPR wild west. It would be nice if there were a less laborious way for everyone else to participate in that conversation.

Gene editing is both exciting and terrifying. The medical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural applications are particularly enthralling—but likewise, the specter of human engineering, genetic screening, and bioweaponry manufacture are just as paralyzing. The speed of CRISPR-related development has already raised concern in the scientific and defense communities. But both CRISPR’s promise and threat remain opaque to the human beings whose lives might be altered by their impact. For the time being, scientists, journalists, policymakers, and the public lack a clear reference on what the family of molecular gadgets known as CRISPR can—and do—make possible.

Meanwhile, CRISPR research and development is accelerating. CRISPR hype is skyrocketing. That pace will only increase now that the patent dispute has concluded, clearing the way for lucrative licensing. It may seem silly to raise a flag about the name used to signify a technology when so many exciting (and terrifying) applications of that technology are already rolling out. But it is impossible to debate a technology’s applications in the public forum without an effective way to refer to the thing being debated. Unless the scientific community acts to explain and clarify the technology, its uses, and its dangers, it will cede that right to others.

And those proverbial, genetically-modified wolves are already circling. If science doesn’t step in first, the first general-audience take on gene editing might come in the form of a Jennifer Lopez-produced network television drama about saving humanity from a mad scientist. The show’s working title: “C.R.I.S.P.R.”