The technological progress over the last few decades has been impressive. It doesn’t only concern smartwatches and other gadgets that we use daily, but also scientific discoveries that could be a major gamechanger for the human population. One of those discoveries is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR).
Why is CRISPR important?
CRISPR is a tool used to edit genomes, it creates the ability to alter DNA sequences and modify the function of a gene. There are many potential applications for this tool, for example, CRISPR could be used to improve the quality crops and it could also be used to treat and prevent the spread of bacteria that cause various diseases.
In this article, we will try to explain the basics of CRISPR technology and how it works. If you would like to learn more about its potential applications in healthcare, agriculture, and other industries, we suggest enrolling in a CRISPR course. Even if you aren’t an expert and have no prior knowledge of CRISPR, you could still benefit from understanding the market opportunities that genetic manipulation brings for businesses and how to make use of this potential responsibly.
What is Cas9?
The full name of this new technology is CRISPR-Cas9, it is often shortened to CRISPR. Cas9 refers to the protein enzyme that proves helpful in the editing of genes. Think of it as a pair of scissors however, instead of cutting paper, you are cutting DNA strands and putting them back together in a way that suits you.
Scientists first observed Cas9 in bacteria that were using it to cut out and destroy viruses trying to attack them. As a result, the virus was entirely harmless for the bacteria.
Although bacteria are single-celled and simple organisms, their natural defence mechanisms proved very reliable over time. It seems that Cas9 was the key to resisting foreign bodies from destroying bacteria, which is why scientists are looking to use it to human advantage.
How Does CRISPR Work?
The idea is simple – The cas9 enzyme should be transferred to another organism or lab condition where we can use it to “edit” or manipulate genes. It was in 2017 when scientists from the University of Tokyo published a paper that shows how CRISPR works.
The essential thing to mention is that CRISPR is a single section of DNA that features spacers and nucleotide sequences that repeat themselves. These are also known as DNA building blocks, and spacers are identified between these sequences. Think of the spacers as a place to store information that enables identifying the viruses and resisting any attacks in the future.
Another interesting study was published in 2007 after scientists observed the bacteria called Streptococcus Thermophilus, which is often found in dairy. During their observation they noticed new spacers appearing after a foreign body attacked the bacteria. The spacers then replicated the DNA found in the genome of the foreign body used for the attack, which improved the bacteria’s resistance to that attacker.
Cas9 helps to cut into the genome, but thanks to a specific working mechanism, it knows where to cut. The Cas9 enzyme utilizes PAM (protospacer adjacent motif) sequence as markers to indicate when to cut a particular sequence. This is how the Cas9 enzyme recognizes when to act to help its host repel an attacking virus.
How Can We Use CRISPR to Edit Genomes?
A genome contains DNA sequences with multiple instructions and messages important for a living being. The idea of editing a genome implies that we can find a way to alter these sequences. CRISPR technology allows us to do that by cutting and editing DNA and ‘tricking’ its repair mechanism to apply the desired changes.
According to studies, it is possible to cut any DNA sequence by using the CRISPR-Cas9 tool. All it takes is to replicate the gene by designing identical nucleotide pairs. From there, Cas9 and RNA will perform the job of cutting the DNA at the specified location.
The crucial thing to ensure is that the nucleotide stretch designed to match the gene doesn’t show anywhere else. Otherwise, the protein might cut in other locations too, which could lead to problems.
After the cutting process finishes, it is time for cell repair. The result of the repair should be the desired change to the genome, such as a mutation. The cell fills the cut with the specified nucleotide sequence provided by the scientists. That way, we get to edit the genome any way we want.
The Most Efficient Genome-Editing Technique So Far
Although it is not the first tool for editing genomes, CRISPR is the most efficient thus far. Additionally, it is fairly simple to use, which might allow it to be used for a wide range of applications.
Arguably, the most important application is healthcare and using technology to address certain genetic defects. Scientists are already testing the CRISPR technique to help with the treatment of cataracts, cystic fibrosis, and other medical conditions. Although more studies are necessary, these are crucial to start the therapeutic application of this tool.
Also, CRISPR might make gene drive feasible. Think about this as a way to ensure that a specific trait transfers from the parent to their child. We could pass resistance to diseases throughout generations, which could help us to eliminate many diseases.
Although the public is excited about this new opportunity and its potential to cure many diseases, scientists pinpoint that this is only a portion of what could be done with CRISPR. It is possible to also use them in crops, especially since it could improve resistance to drought and foreign bodies while maintaining nutritional characteristics.
Scientists do however warn that CRISPR is still not a completely efficient technology. Some members of the scientific community have raised questions about whether this technology is even ethical. Despite that, nobody can deny that this is an interesting approach that could be very beneficial for the entire human population. It does, however, highlight the need to ensure that this disruptive technology is used responsibly in the future.