Science’s best tool for editing genes
No matter how you look at it, CRISPR gene editing has proven itself to be something of a miracle. The technique has transformed biology and genetics, offering a cheap, effective and precise method. Whilst this has obvious implications for healthcare, CRISPR has also found a place within numerous other disciplines. But which are some of the most notable achievements so far?
1. Fighting cancer
Perhaps CRISPR’s most celebrated application is in detecting and treating cancer. Cancer Research UK scientists are currently using the technique to explore the biology of cancerous brain tumours with the aim of producing specialised treatment. By picking apart cancer cells, researchers can decipher which genes are most important to the disease’s survival. In 2016, Chinese scientists began testing CRISPR edited immune cells in lung cancer sufferers. Results have yet to be released, but human trials herald good things for the fight.
2. Extracting HIV
As well as treating cancer, CRISPR is tackling other fatal diseases. One of the greatest triumphs so far has been the successful removal of HIV from human immune cells. At Temple University, a research team eliminated HIV-1 DNA from T cell genomes in human lab cultures. What’s more, when these cells were exposed to the virus at a later date, they were not re-infected. This is a major advancement in potential HIV treatment, as the virus is prone to re-infect victims. The method was shown to be safe for human cells, and could provide a more long term treatment for patients.
3. Making diseases self destruct
At the University of Wisconsin Madison, food scientist Jan-Peter van Pijkeren is developing an antibiotic that makes pathogens ‘commit suicide’. Through a DNA slicing enzyme called Cas, CRISPR chops up the genes of invading bacterium. Then, a CRISPR laced bacteriophage (which infects bacteria) is inserted into the pathogen, rewiring it to destroy itself. The method kills off the targeted disease whilst leaving other beneficial bacteria intact. The antibiotic comes in the form of a pill, making it easy to administer as well as incredibly effective.
4. Improving IVF
In 2016, a Swedish research team led by Fredrick Lanner edited DNA in healthy human embryos with CRISPR. Carrying out gene editing within human embryos could help to improve chances of pregnancy during IVF treatments. As well as benefitting IVF, scientists also hope to use CRISPR to reduce miscarriages. CRISPR’s application to human cells is hotly debated, but in countries like Sweden it remains legal. Earlier this year, Chinese scientists corrected genetic mutations in cells in three normal human embryos. Regulations, however, seem to be discouraging research.
5. Eliminating malaria
Various university teams are working on the elimination of malaria in mosquitos, in the hope of stopping human infection. Through CRISPR Cas 9, scientists can snip out genes that are vital to the spread of malaria within the mosquito population. In short, they could create mosquitos that were resistant to malaria. In 2015, the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology published a journal that announced the use of a new technique called ‘gene drive’. This ensured that genetically modified mosquitos would pass on this resistance to almost all of their offspring, drastically reducing the number of malaria carrying insects.
6. Protecting plants
Using CRISPR to kill weeds might seem like a trivial application, however they are a serious problem for farmers globally and can drastically impact crop yield. Equipping plants with resistance genes could lead to reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides. In January, Monsanto revealed a new global licensing agreement to use CRISPR within agriculture, alongside the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Tom Adams, head of biotechnology at Monsanto, envisages resistance to drought, viruses, fungi and insects too.
7. Producing food
Earlier this year, researchers at Tokushima University announced the creation of seedless tomatoes using CRISPR. Seedless fruit could be a vital step towards more sustainable food production, as they can be grown from scratch in laboratories. This avoids environmental setbacks like insufficient pollination, rain or sunlight, potentially leading to higher crop yields. Project leader Keishi Osakabe believes that CRISPR could also be used to remove allergens from food, as well as improving shelf life.
8. Creating biofuel
A partnership between J. Craig Venter and Exxon Mobil has used CRISPR to improve the energy production of algae. After eight years of research, their joint venture Synthetic Genomics Inc. has successfully doubled the amount of oil produced by the aquatic organism via CRISPR gene editing. The project, which revealed its findings this summer, represents a significant development in alternative energy solutions.
9. Reviving extinct mammals
As future gazing as it sounds, a team at Harvard University has revealed plans to bring back the woolly mammoth with CRISPR. By combining elephant genes with mammoth genes recovered from fossils, the researchers hope to create hybrid embryos which could then be grown in an artificial womb. The announcement came in February 2017, although the team says that the embryos won’t be ready for the next two years.
CRISPR has already disrupted cancer treatment, cured HIV in living organisms, caused diseases to kill themselves, and destroyed harmful genes. Outside of healthcare, the technique has impacted FoodTech, ecology, conservation efforts and sustainable energy. In light of the advancements that have already been made, CRISPR’s future potential is outstanding.