Since it burst onto the scene a decade ago, CRISPR-Cas9 has shaken the field of genetics to its core. Offering a new genomic editing tool that’s faster, cheaper and more accurate than previous approaches, it opens up an astonishing breadth of possible applications.
From saving lives to potentially rescuing coral reefs, here are eight examples of exciting CRISPR projects that showcase just why this gene-editing tech has everyone talking.
Mosquitos play a big role in the spread of malaria, a potentially deadly parasitic disease which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
To help battle this, researchers from Johns Hopkins University have used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to engineer mosquitos that are resistant to the malaria parasite. By deleting a gene that enables malaria to survive in the mosquito’s gut, the parasite is left unable to survive for long enough to be a danger to humans.
Right now, there’s a hitch in the plan since the modified mosquitoes are less likely to thrive in the wild, and therefore pass on their genes, than ordinary mosquitoes. However, the researchers are working on a way to change that. Hey, who said wiping out a disease like malaria was going to be easy?
A limitless supply of transplant organs
There’s an enormous, deadly shortage of transplant organs worldwide. Could CRISPR gene editing help? Quite possibly yes, according to one international research initiative with the goal of using gene editing on pigs to turn them into safe organ donor candidates for humans.
The use of CRISPR in this case involves eradicating the pig-based diseases — known as porcine endogenous retroviruses, a.k.a. PERVs — embedded in pig DNA. So far, scientists have been able to breed pigs which are 100 percent PERV-inactivated.
The next step in research will involve carrying out additional work to make xenotransplantation (the process of transplanting tissues or organs from one species to another) achievable.
Encoding GIFs in your DNA
— Singularity Hub (@singularityhub) July 16, 2017
No, the next entry on this list isn’t as potentially world-changing as ending transplant waiting lists or eradicating malaria. But it’s pretty darn fascinating in its own right.
Researchers at Harvard University recently showed that it is possible to use CRISPR to accurately encode images and even movies into DNA. The footage in question is a 36 x 26-pixel GIF showing a galloping horse filmed by motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge all the way back in 1878.
The researchers were able to encode this into an E. coli bacteria so that it could later be reassembled with 90 percent accuracy in the correct order. Useful? Not right now.
A possible future market for geeks who want their favorite Star Wars clip or reaction GIF to be made a permanent part of their DNA? We can totally see that!
Saving the world’s coral reefs
Coral reefs dying doesn’t just mean that you’ll have fewer holiday snaps to show your buddies when you get home from your next tropical vacation. It has the potential to be an ecological and economic disaster which will affect millions of people — and a whole lot of other creatures, to boot.
Looking to change that, an international research project is using CRISPR to examine exactly how and why environmental changes hurt coral reefs. No, there are no immediate plans to create a CRISPR-enabled breed of super coral, but understanding coral genes will help researchers to get to grips with phenomena like coral bleaching. And hopefully start making efforts to reverse it.
More efficient crops
The world’s population is rapidly increasing, and that brings a range of challenges when it comes to how best to feed everyone. Research aided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has demonstrated that it is possible to use CRISPR to improve the efficiency of how crops use water by 25 percent — without compromising their yield in the process.
This is achieved by tricking the plant into partially closing its stomata, the microscopic pores in the leaf which release water. So far, the gene editing has been showcased in tobacco crops, since these are easier to modify and quicker to test than other crops. However, because the gene being altered is found in every plant, the discovery could be applicable to a vast number of crops.
Researchers from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are trying to use genetic engineering to create heat-resistant cows which can thrive in warmer environments.
The geneticists working on the project are studying the Brangus cow, a mix between an Angus and a Brahman that is good at thriving in warm climates.By isolating the specific DNA segments which allow it to regulate its body temperature so effectively, they hope to make other types of heat-resistant bovine. All without sacrificing taste, of course!
The Ice Bucket Challenge may have helped raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but CRISPR could one day help treat it.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have shown that it is possible to disable the defective gene which triggers ALS in mice. Although they were not able to get rid of the disease permanently, their treatment extended the mice’s life span by 25 percent.
They believe that the research could be carried over to humans, with the possibility of extending the timeframe of additional healthy years.
Home disease diagnosis
Imagine being able to use CRISPR technology as a high-tech disease diagnosis platform from the comfort of your own home. That’s the goal of a new startup called Mammoth Biosciences. The company is busy developing at-home tests which promise to be able to detect everything from STDs to cancers.
“Similar to a search engine, our scientists enter a code into the guide RNA to find the matching nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) strand in the disease,” Mammoth CEO Trevor Martin told Digital Trends. “Once the code is found, instead of only snipping the strand of matched RNA or DNA like one would for editing, it also has a collateral effect on reporter molecules that release a color to visually show the presence of the disease.”
The tests will reportedly be as straightforward as an at-home pregnancy test, with answers available to customers in under an hour. There’s no word on when these tests will be available but, when they are, it could prove to be a game changer.
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