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Online genome-editing kits available for Rs 14,000, raise bio-hacking concerns

Online genome-editing kits can be bought for as little as Rs 14,000. Experts have raised concerns over its easy availability. The process targets the genome’s source material to make permanent changes at the DNA level.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 16, 2017 07:21 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Online genome-editing kits,Bio-hacking,Genome editing tool
The genome-editing kits target the genome’s source material to make permanent changes at the DNA level.(Shutterstock)

Experts have raised concern over the easy availability of a genome editing tool that can be used to practically edit DNA at home for as little as Rs 14,000.

The kits, which were launched in the US in 2015 for sale mostly to laboratories and amateur biology-interest groups, can now be ordered online by anyone and shipped to India.

CRISPR or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats technology is being used in labs across the world, including in India, and is considered a game-changer in biotechnology because it allows researchers to quickly change the DNA to correct anomalies in nearly any organism.

It targets the genome’s source material to make permanent changes at the DNA level.

“The CRISPR technology revolutionised genetic engineering but there has to be some form of protection against irresponsible bio-engineering and from bio-hackers,” Suman Sahai, who chaired the Planning Commission Task Force on ‘Agrobiodiversity and Genetically Engineered Organisms’ for the 11th five-year plan, said.

The online kit for bacterial gene-editing costs $205 (around Rs 14,000), including shipping charges to Kolkata. The product description says the kit “includes everything you need to make precision genome edits in bacteria at home… comes with an example experiment that teaches you many molecular biology and gene engineering techniques.”

“Using these kits, anyone can create harmful organisms by making changes in certain virus or bacteria, accidentally or willfully, which can be potentially life-threatening if they escape into the eco-system,” Sahai added.

“Laboratories have safety protocols and record every experiment and outcome, but there is no way to track what is happening when amateur scientists and people with malicious intentions are using these tools to edit genes,” Sahai said.

She cautioned that potentially harmful organisms can be created and released into the ecosystem and virulent viral attacks may take place if a virus gets modified.

Making the technology available to everyone at a time when the accidental and deliberate fallouts are still being debated is a major cause of concern.

“We cannot welcome a community of unregulated, unmonitored amateur practitioners of this technology,” Dinesh Abrol, a professor at the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, Delhi, said.

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First Published: Feb 15, 2017 13:25 IST