Genome editing technologies enable scientists to make changes to the DNA of many organisms, including plants, bacteria, and animals.
Scientists use different technologies to do this. These technologies act like scissors, cutting the DNA at a specific spot. Then the scientists can remove, add, or replace the DNA where it was cut.
The first genome editing technologies were developed in the late 1900s. More recently, a new genome-editing tool called CRISPR, invented in 2009, has made it easier than ever to edit DNA.
CRISPR is simpler, faster, cheaper, and more accurate than older genome editing methods. Many scientists who perform genome editing now use CRISPR.
CRISPR Cas 9 is a revolutionary gene-editing tool, a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding, or altering sections of the DNA sequence.
CRISPR has the potential to do many beneficial things for society.
It is currently the simplest, most versatile, and precise method of genetic manipulation and is therefore causing a buzz in the science world.
How does CRISPR work?
The CRISPR- Cas9 system consists of two molecules that introduce a change or mutation into the DNA.
These molecules are:
- Cas9 is a programmable enzyme, which acts as a pair of scissors that can cut the two strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome so that bits of DNA can then be added or removed. This enzyme can be programmed with little bits of RNA (these are little copies of DNA that allows Cas9 protein to find a piece of DNA) and cut it, cells take over and repair the break and, in the process, introduce a change in the DNA (exactly at that place in the genome).
- Guide RNA (gRNA), consists of a small piece of the pre-designed RNA sequence. The guide RNA is designed to find and bind to a specific sequence in the DNA. The guide RNA has RNA bases that are complementary to those of the target DNA sequence in the genome. This means that the guide RNA will only bind to the target sequence and no other regions of the genome. The Cas9 follows the guide RNA to the same location in the DNA sequence and cuts across both strands of the DNA. At this stage, the cell recognizes that the DNA is damaged and tries to repair it.
How was CRISPR technology developed?
The CRISPR technology is based on a bacteria immune system that allows bacterial to fight viral infections.
Some bacteria have a similar, built-in, gene editing system to the CRISPR-Cas9 system that they use to respond to invading pathogens like viruses, much like an immune system.
Using CRISPR the bacteria snip out parts of the virus DNA and keep a bit of it behind to help them recognize and defend against the virus next time it attacks.
Scientists adapted this system so that it could be used in other cells from animals, including mice and humans.
Applications of the CRISPR-Cas9
One of the reasons scientists are so excited about the CRISPR-Cas9 technology is that it has a lot of potential as a tool for treating a range of medical conditions that have a genetic component, including cancer, hepatitis B, Cystic fibrosis, or even high cholesterol.
Many of the proposed applications involve editing the genomes of somatic (non-reproductive) cells but there has been a lot of interest in and debate about the potential to edit the egg line.
The egg line means, eggs, sperm, or embryos, when these changes are made in the DNA in those cells and can be passed in all future descendants, and it has important ethical implications.
This is the main reason why carrying out gene editing in germline cells is currently illegal in the UK and most other countries.
By contrast, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene-editing technologies in somatic cells is uncontroversial. Indeed, they have already been used to treat human diseases in a small number of exceptional and/or life-threatening cases.
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