One Gene Editor to Rule Them All

A revolutionary technology that makes gene editing less costly, simpler, and more efficient has captured the scientific world’s imagination – CRISPR/Cas9 – and made the rest of us rethink previous strategies and ethics when it comes to modifying DNA.

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9, is a family of DNA sequences found in bacteria that handle immune defense by slicing up invading viruses that might kill them.

Scientists have weaponized this molecular-level tool to change any letter or letters in an organism’s DNA to correct errors in a genetic code that found their way in and were replicated. There is even the possibility of being able to improve the genetic code within food crops, livestock, and people.

It is best to begin the editing process at the earliest point possible, while there is only a single cell in an embryo. CRISPR/Cas9 snips out the unwanted gene like scissors to replace it with a desirable one, and is a much less technical way to think about the dynamics involved.

Current experiments use mouse embryos and cells grown in petri dishes, while other researchers are attempting to modify stem cells that later may be injected into patients to repair damaged organs.

There are a few labs around the world working with early human embryos, but the research is highly regulated and watched carefully by monitors from other labs. Most are working on plant cells as a whole plant can be grown from just a few cells.

The scope and merits of what can be achieved with CRISPR/Cas9 hopefully will improve as the results of these experiments are reported over the next few years. Every organism and cell is unique so the unexpected side effects, consequences, ethics, and goals of changing genes within an organism must be considered as well.