genome editing

Genome Editing: How Tools Like CRISPR Alter DNA

CRISPR-modified rice courtesy of Penn State via Flickr

Once upon a time, words were set in stone, literally — then, along came pencils, paper, computers and more; now, editing a blog is easier than baking a pie.

DNA is another one of those things that was once thought to be unchangeable. Your genetic code is formed in the earliest of life stages, and now you’ll just have to live with your hair and eye color — or else go all in for superficial coloring.

Scientists are discovering now, however, that DNA editing is not only possible, but easier than we could have imagined. The possibilities are both promising and terrifying.

Genome editing: the basics

Genome editing is a type of genetic engineering through which engineered nucleases (also known as molecular scissors) insert, replace, or remove DNA from a genome to manipulate genes.

Typically, the method will target broken genes and “fix” the DNA sequence by locating the problem, cutting that particular gene, and replacing it with a new sequence: essentially, hacking it to do scientists’ bidding.

Since there are billions of letters in the human genome, DNA editing has to be very specific; it isn’t yet able to tackle complex diseases that affect many different genes (to do so, each would require its own pair scissors, so to speak).

Enter CRISPR, revolutionary tool

It may sound like a potato chip delivery startup, but CRISPR has nothing to do with salty snacks and everything to do with genome editing.

A History of CRISPR

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” (damn, that’s a lot of adjectives.) It’s actually a naturally occurring defense mechanism found in bacteria, and when combined with Cas9 (a CRISPR-associated protein) and hybrid RNA, voila: it can be used as an ultra-precise gene editing tool.

CRISPR/Cas9 has exploded in popularity, with the technique being mentioned in scientific publications at about a rate of 20 papers a week so far in 2015.

What are the possibilities?

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”8XjNfCRK2darb6Im0E5dlGSxRwsfad40″]Since the CRISPR/Cas9 technique was discovered in 2013, it has been used to edit the genetic code in crops, mice, pigs, goats, cattle, frogs and monkeys: mostly in attempts to target and eliminate disease strains.

But there has since been calls for banning the process on human embryos due to ethical and safety implications.

Many so we just don’t know enough (yet) about the human genome to experiment responsibly. But beyond this, ethical concerns are of the utmost concern: fears of eugenics, designer babies, and the implication of altering future generations without consent.

Given the growth of the process in just two years, these are topics that will continue to be investigated among scientists and upcoming CRISPR conventions.

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Jennifer Markert