God, malaria, and wolverine claws: Colbert talks CRISPR with George Church

OK, so the conversation didn’t get real wonky.

But still, there was geneticist George Church, on late night TV, telling Stephen Colbert all about the gene editing technique known as CRISPR.

On top of all the buzz about the recent move by a pioneering gene-editing company to go public, STAT might be forced to declare this The Week CRISPR Went Mainstream.

“It’s a kind of buzzword,” said Church, a Harvard Medical School professor and CRISPR pioneer.

“CRISPR?” Colbert responded. “That sounds like an app.”

Church, who arrived on Colbert’s stage via the show’s “science-mobile” (a golf cart driven by a man in a lab coat with an Einstein bobblehead on the dash), explained how CRISPR enabled scientists to edit DNA more precisely and easily than ever before. The technology has raised concerns about “designer babes” — a prospect scientists say won’t happen for years, if ever — but Colbert took the idea to a different, more comic-booky extreme.

“How are humans being modified right now?” the host asked Church. “Can you give me Wolverine claws?”

To which Church replied: “I think you’re better off without them.”

Humans, of course, aren’t being modified with CRISPR now, but Church pointed out the technology is being used in the lab to make mosquitos resistant to malaria and to explore possible HIV and hepatitis treatments.

Colbert also broached the ethical issues involved with gene editing, which scientists have been grappling with in academic journals and at a recent international conference.

Dom Smith/STAT CRISPR is a tool that acts as a microscopic pair of scissors with the ability to slice DNA.

“Aren’t you playing God, or are you just growing his beard?” Colbert asked Church. (Church appeared on Colbert’s former show, “The Colbert Report,” in 2012, and that conversation included a God’s beard joke as well.)

Church said scientists are more engineers and safety technicians than deities. Geneticists, he said, aren’t in God’s league. “At all.”

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