|Using CRISPR, scientists can take DNA sequences and alter them in many different ways. / Photo by: Getty Images|
Imagine being able to change the natural color of your hair, or to make sure that the tree you planted in your garden would bear the best fruits. While they sound like science fiction ideas, the technology to achieve this may be right around the corner, and it’s called with CRISPR.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which is often shortened to CRISPR, is a genome-editing technology. Using this, scientists can take DNA sequences and alter them in many different ways.
CRISPRs themselves are the specialized segments of DNA they stand for clusters of regularly interspaced, short, palindromic repeats. The Cas9, however, is the enzyme that functions like a cutting tool to remove strands of DNA, which can then be swapped in for another sequence.
How It Works
CRISPRs have two unique characteristics, namely the nucleotide repeats and spacers. The repeated sequences are basically the basic building blocks of DNA, while spacers, as the name suggests, are the small parts of the DNA that separate these sequences.
The use of CRISPR was inspired by the methods used by bacteria. When viruses attack it, bacteria remove the spacers from these intruders and then store them in their memory. The next time the same virus attacks, the bacteria will be able to protect themselves. The scientists that discovered this then experimented with switching out different DNA spacers and altering the immunity to different viruses.
While this science may sound imprecise and dangerous, there are safety mechanisms that help keep Cas9 from cutting just anywhere on the DNA sequence. PAMs or protospacer adjacent motifs mark the ends of the sequences that are meant to be cut off and replaced.
A DNA sequence is basically an instruction manual of an organism, and the genomes within are the messages and instructions themselves. By cutting some parts out, the DNA will naturally repair itself, and this repair system will allow scientists to prompt the changes they want to see.
Advantages and Uses
There has been a great increase in the popularity of CRISPR technology in recent years. The method is about four times more efficient than anything used previously, according to Live Science. Considering its ease of use and precision, there is an incredible number of applications for this technology, which include eradicating genetic conditions, preventing diseases, and even improving the quality and lifespan of crops and livestock.
Some of the most promising and incredible achievements of the recent CRISPR projects have been the impact on crop and plant growth. Scientists are trying to make them less susceptible to pests and to better endure harsh climate changes. They have even improved the flavor and the amount of nutrition received from the crops, according to Synthego.com. These improvements were made in food products, such as tomatoes and rice crops, which increased the size and the yield.
There has also been much headway made in the medical sector. In order for clinical trials to be approved in humans, they must first be safe in animals. Complicated animal models have been utilized to find out how safe the technology is when used on complex living organisms. Therapy for several diseases has already been tested.
One was the treatment of Duchenne muscular dystrophy found in dogs. After the system was injected in dogs with the condition, the gene responsible was repaired and even the muscle damage caused by the disease steadily improved after treatment was given. They also used CRISPR-edited monkeys to study the brain changes that occurred in Rett syndrome, which is a neurological disorder. With this, they were able to observe brain shrinkage and gather data to develop future solutions.
In 2018, the FDA finally approved investigational therapy proposals for CRISPR’s use in addressing hereditary blood disorders, specifically sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia.
Drawbacks and Problems
Despite its usefulness and the praise that CRISPR technology has received, as well as its further improvements, there are still problems that must be addressed when dealing with the issue. The question of ethics in changing the very DNA of a creature is one not to be taken lightly. Many argue that we do not know enough about human genetics and the interactions between genes and the environment to warrant any human experimentation. As DNA and traits can be passed down through many generations, seemingly small or harmless changes could snowball into unstoppable problems in the future.
Aside from seemingly playing God, it's possible that it could be disastrous from an ecological standpoint. Engineering things to be perfect would lessen the biodiversity of a certain population, and traits may be spread so far by crossbreeding that it can no longer be controlled.
Also, while the technology is quite precise, this does not mean that error could not happen anyway. Unintended mutations may occur and this may even irreversibly affect the DNA line.
While the technology is still gaining traction, it is doing so quickly. It has enormous potential to improve human life and even the entire world’s ecosystem. But caution must be practiced and consequences should be considered at all times.
|Error like unintended mutations may occur and may even irreversibly affect the DNA line. / Photo by: Getty Images|