What does DNA editing have in common with Amazon? Well, in the case of the revolutionary genome-splicing technology CRISPR, users can now upgrade to ‘Prime’.
The term ‘CRISPR’ has become shorthand for a genome-editing tool – a method for lab scientists to cut and paste material within a molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid, aka DNA. However, that term is somewhat misleading.
CRISPR – or ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats’ – are simply genetic sequences within the DNA of single-celled organisms, such as bacteria. Since the late ’80s, scientists around the world have been busily working to access targeted DNA and identify and replace specific sequences within the genetic code.
Arguably, the more crucial element in adjusting the DNA structure of a multi-celled organism, such as a mouse or a human being, is a special protein called Cas9 – or ‘CRISPR-associated protein 9’. That enzyme allows an ‘edited’ sequence to find and effectively ‘copy and paste’ itself in place of an existing DNA sequence.
Why do that? In theory, a particular combination of As, Cs, Ts or Gs in the genetic code may predispose a person to develop lung cancer or carry an inherited disease like cystic fibrosis. In that sense, the ability to alter the instructions contained in a DNA molecule with Cas9 enzymes could ‘cure’ patients or prevent someone from passing a disease on to their children.
Might this technology eventually cure cancer, or might it be more widely used to carry out cosmetic surgery via the human genome? Those questions haven’t been answered yet, but two recent CRISPR-related discoveries are starting to paint a picture of things to come.
According to recent news reports, researchers at the University of Delaware appear to have made a breakthrough in genome engineering: effectively using a variant of Cas9 enzymes to ‘speed up’ certain chemical reactions that would normally occur within a cell.
Instead of chopping out bits of code from a target site and replacing them, the altered ‘dCas9’ protein sticks to an existing chain, making a molecule more chemically reactive than it otherwise would be. The team believes the increased potential for reactions could lead to significant breakthroughs in biofuels and medical treatments.
At the same time, CRISPR is being refined and a ‘Prime’ version of the technology that recently appeared on the scene is making genetic edits cleaner and more precise, and has already been used to stop an HIV-carrying parent from passing the virus to their unborn children.
Cancer cure or real-life Jurassic Park?
So what will CRISPR do first: cure cancer or bring back the woolly mammoth? Again, the jury is out, but there is at least some form of consensus within the scientific community on where things are heading.
CRISPR is far cheaper than previous technologies and has dramatically cut the work time needed to edit a DNA sequence. That said, it still requires a professional laboratory with trained staff and expensive equipment, so its roll out will depend on financial resources.
What is also certain is that, beyond simply being able to carry out gene therapy or gene editing, ethical questions abound – including whether genetically modified parents automatically have a right to pass their altered DNA to ‘unconsenting’ future generations.
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