Understanding CRISPR Gene Editing and How It Will Transform Life as We Know It

By  //  May 17, 2022

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CRISPR — clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — gene editing is a revolutionary method that scientists use to modify the DNA of living organisms, from humans and animals to plants, bacteria, and viruses. The gene editing process often involves inserting or deleting DNA to activate or deactivate genes.

This way, scientists can prevent and cure otherwise incurable diseases, delay age-related illnesses, reduce the costs of treatments, and breed animals and plants that will benefit the agriculture industry most.

As a result, CRISPR is essential to the future of medical treatments and has the power to transform life as we know it. While medical, scientific, and agricultural sectors make more use of CRISPR, the life sciences journal BioTechniques covers the development of this gene editing approach in its high-quality print journal and on its website. BioTechniques is widely known for showcasing breakthrough methods, techniques, and technologies in science, including the latest on CRISPR gene editing’s potential.

Here, we’ll examine how CRISPR gene editing works, the power of CRISPR, how the process may evolve, and how CRISPR screening can advance drug discovery.

How CRISPR Gene Editing Works

CRISPR gene editing involves the modification of ‘Cas’ proteins, which are present in bacteria and defend the body against viruses. The process sees scientists program one of the Cas proteins, the Cas9 protein, so it can find and bind the protein to a target sequence. During the binding process, scientists pair the protein with a piece of RNA to guide it in its search. Then, the protein and guide RNA move along the strands of DNA until they find and bind to a sequence of DNA with 20 bases that matches part of the guide RNA sequence. This sequence is tiny — the DNA in each of our cells is two meters long and has six billion bases.

The next part of the process can vary. In gene editing, the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA at its target. When scientists repair this cut, they introduce mutations that typically disable a gene. While the results of this process aren’t always as precise as scientists would like, they have developed new CRISPR gene editing techniques that result in more predictable mutations.

Alternatively, sometimes scientists control genes to prevent genetic diseases. For example, scientists can turn genes on or off (CRISPRa and CRISPRi respectively) with customized Cas proteins. As another example, biologists can change one base of the DNA code to fix unwanted alterations. This process is an alternative to cutting or modifying DNA.

Since scientists used Cas9 proteins to form the basis of the first CRISPR system approximately 10 years ago, they have developed a variety of new CRISPR systems that use other enzymes, such as the Cas12a protein. Now, scientists continue to develop CRISPR systems with different enzymes that could expand gene editing’s potential in different applications.

The Power of CRISPR Gene Editing

Within a few years of its invention, CRISPR had transformed biomedical research with its ability to control and alter DNA and therefore eliminate diseases like AIDS, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and blood disorders. Scientists can employ CRISPR to create gene drives and fingerprint cells and log activity within these cells. Scientists can also use the approach to develop smart cells that track our health from within us. With this technology, the future could even see scientists record the biography of a cell.

In 2020, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize for developing CRISPR. Their paper, ‘A programmable dual-RNA-guided DNA endonuclease in adaptive bacterial immunity’ (2012), details how CRISPR can cut specific sites in DNA. Since the publication of this paper, CRISPR’s use has grown yet further, and research in the field has made it possible to identify what makes cells cancerous, breed muscular police dogs, grow drought-resistant maize, and test for COVID-19.

The Future of CRISPR Gene Editing

The future holds endless possibilities for CRISPR gene editing. We can expect to see scientists use the technology to treat and prevent more diseases such as HIV and heart disease, manufacture drugs that combat obesity, develop gene therapies for organ transplants, breed horn-free cattle, breed a higher proportion of female animals to reduce the number of male animals slaughtered upon birth, and produce healthier food products.

Looking even further ahead, CRISPR gene editing could open possibilities of editing our children’s genomes so they don’t inherit genetic disorders. The first gene-edited babies have already been born in China. While many believe this genetic engineering is unethical, development in gene editing could see this process improve the health and quality of life of future generations.

How CRISPR Screening Can Progress Drug Discovery

CRISPR screening involves testing for genes, which is integral to medical research for diseases like cancer. CRISPR knockouts, screens, and single-cell screens offer much quicker, simpler workflows than traditional screening methods, which are often time-consuming, complex, and offer low-resolution data output.

CRISPR screening solutions help scientists understand gene expression and disease pathways and identify drug targets for different diseases. As an example, CRISPR screening has helped scientists identify a new drug target for acute myeloid leukemia, which could lead to the development of a new treatment for the cancer.

CRISPR screening is also becoming more widely adopted in other sectors. For example, the agriculture industry is now using genetic knockout technology to prevent cows from having miscarriages. This technology can give farmers the best chances of developing healthy embryos for successful cattle pregnancy.

BioTechniques published its first issue in 1983, becoming the first publication to focus on lab methodologies instead of treatments. To this day, the leading life sciences journal examines the methods and techniques that scientists and biologists employ to develop life-changing treatments.

The efficacy and reproducibility of these methods and techniques are essential to scientific and medical progression, which is why BioTechniques curates and publishes extensive coverage of methods like polymerase chain reaction, western blotting, next-generation sequencing, chromatography, and CRISPR gene editing.

Scientists and lab workers who work in disciplines like physics, chemistry, computer science, plant science, and agricultural science access both the print journal and BioTechniques’ multimedia website for its high-quality resources, which include videos, interviews, webinars, articles, eBooks, and podcasts.