CRISPR: Science’s Newest Supertechnology
CRISPR, which is often referred to as the biotechnology innovation of the century, is being applied to battle HIV, pioneer designer baby research, combat cancer, and even edit an embryonic human genome . But now, the ever-versatile CRISPR is finding its applications against drug-resistant bacteria.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a powerful gene-editing tool that is used to edit DNA in both animals and humans. CRISPR originates from the immune system of bacteria, which uses the technology to fend off against harmful bacteriophages. To combat this, something known as the Cas9 protein decomposes the virus genetic material, and stores a portion of it as an archive. This archive is added as a marker to the existing host DNA. When that viral DNA enters the host again from a different propagation point, the CRISPR system can identify the viral DNA due to the stored archive, allowing it to scan all of the host DNA and cut out genetic information that was part of the archived viral data.
In this way, CRISPR acts as a cut and paste tool that is both powerful and easy to use.
How is CRISPR used?
Recently, CRISPR has been approved to be tested in human cancer patients due to its promising results in animal models. In 2017, researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation used CRISPR to snip out malaria in mosquitoes. Recently, scientists have found a way to treat harmful bacteria using CRISPR. These so called “superbugs” cannot be treated by mainstream medications, and are quickly becoming a serious risk.
Dr. Jan-Peter Van Pijkeren the University of Wisconsin-Madison has highlighted a potential plan that could be used to fight this bacteria. It involves using the CRISPR technology to convince these harmful bacterias to destroy their own DNA. The idea details a procedure in which the CRISPR is given to a bacteriophage, which can enter the bacteria. It would be administered along with other bacteria within a probiotic pill. This plan intends to use the bacteria’s own weapon against it.
Among the many positive benefits of CRISPR and gene editing in general, there are concerns that have forced scientists to put the brakes on promising new research such as editing human embryos. Gene editing could be used to change genes that have no bearing on health, such as eye color . This would also affect future generations and may lead to a decrease in the genetic pool diversity. CRISPR could also be used to create more deadly viral diseases. There are also ethical questions when the genetic makeup of a person is changed.
However, don’t let the negative consequences overshadow the seemingly endless benefits of CRISPR. CRISPR, named the 2015 Breakthrough of the year by Science Magazine, is revolutionizing the science field. Jennifer Doudna, the pioneer of CRISPR and TIME Magazine’s runner up for person of the year says “the more we know, the more we realize there is to know”.
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