The ability to edit RNA and individual DNA base pairs will make gene editing much more precise.
Several years ago, scientists discovered a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, which allowed them to edit DNA more efficiently than ever before.
Since then, CRISPR science has exploded; it’s become one of the most exciting and fast-moving areas of research, transforming everything from medicine to agriculture and energy. In 2017 alone, more than 14,000 CRISPR studies were published.
But here’s the thing: CRISPR, while a major leap forward in gene editing, can still be a blunt instrument. There have been problems with CRISPR modifying unintended gene targets and making worrisome, and permanent, edits to an organism’s genome. These changes could be passed down through generations, which has raised the stakes of CRISPR experiments — and the twin specters of “designer babies” and genetic performance enhancers — particularly when it comes to editing genes in human embryos.
So while CRISPR science is advancing quickly, scientists are still very much in the throes of tweaking and refining their toolkit. And on Wednesday, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard launched a coordinated blitz with two big reports that move CRISPR in that safer and more precise direction.
In a paper published in Science, researchers described an entirely new CRISPR-based gene editing tool that targets RNA, DNA’s sister, allowing for transient changes to genetic material. In Nature, scientists described how a more refined type of CRISPR gene editing can alter a single bit of DNA without cutting it — increasing the tool’s precision and efficiency.
Researchers have discovered an entirely new CRISPR-based gene editing tool
The first paper, out Wednesday in Science, describes a new gene editing system. This one, from researchers at MIT and Harvard, focuses on tweaking human RNA instead of DNA.
Our cells contain chromosomes made up of chemical strands called DNA, which carry genetic information. Those genes have recipes for proteins that lead to a bunch of different traits. But to carry out the instructions in any one recipe, DNA needs another type of genetic material called RNA to get involved.
RNA is ephemeral: It acts like a middleman, or a messenger. For a gene to become a protein, that gene has to be transcribed into RNA in the cell, and the RNA is then read to make the protein. If the DNA is permanent — the family recipe book passed down through generations — the RNA is like your aunt’s scribbled-out recipe on a Post-It note, turning up only when it’s needed and disappearing again.