A recent revolutionary discovery in the world of genetics revealed a tool that allows scientists to directly edit DNA in a way that’s easy and cheap. This could usher in a new age of genetically edited or even engineered animals, and could eventually be used to create “designer babies.”
But in the meantime, this tool, called CRISPR, is helping us do something else — something that’s essential if we want to really re-write the genetic code. It’s helping us understand what genes actually do, both in humans and in animals.
The big misunderstanding of the age of genetics is that people think we fully understand how genes code for traits and behaviour. Once we mapped the billions of letters in the human genome and in the genomes of various other species, many assumed there would be a “genetic revolution,” where our newfound knowledge of the genome would transform our understanding of life.
But really, we only know that a few specific genes are uniquely responsible for certain diseases or traits and that many more genes are broadly associated with certain characteristics, though not uniquely responsible for them. Genetic information has proved to be helpful mostly in treating cancer and rare diseases, known as diagnostic odysseys, where a rare genetic mutation is responsible for a medical condition.
CRISPR is already helping us understand much more.
‘Operating in the dark’
For the most part, in both humans and other creatures, we have no idea how the many genes that are responsible for something complex like intelligence or size interact, and we often have little understanding of what role a certain gene plays or what characteristic — or set of characteristics — that gene contributes to.
“We’re so much operating in the dark right now,” explains Dr. Eric Green, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, who spoke with Tech Insider earlier this summer. Green explained that while we now have the technology to sequence a genome, we don’t have the knowledge to understand what it all means.
The technology has moved faster than the science. Now, technology is propelling the science forward.
The CRISPR gene-editing tool is helping researchers figure out what genes actually do. By activating or de-activating, removing or even replacing genes, scientists can see exactly how each adjustment changes things.
Obviously these aren’t the sort of experiments that researchers would perform in humans, since it would be absolutely unethical to randomly start switching genes on and off. But scientists can re-create diseases in animals and see how editing a certain gene affects the health of the creature overall.
‘Pick your gene’
Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have used genetic manipulation to develop mice with lung cancer. Feng Zhang, one of the first scientists to show that CRISPR could be used in human cells, was involved with this research.
In a press release, Zhang explained that the project helps illustrate how the interaction of different genes affects the disease. “The goal in developing the mouse was to empower researchers so that they can more rapidly screen through the long list of genes that have been implicated in disease and normal biological processes,” he said.
But it’s not just questions about the genetic cause of disease that genetic manipulation can solve. As Amy Maxmen explains in recent Wired feature on how this technology will transform the world, gene editing tools can be used to answer a question about any gene, in any creature.
For example, researchers once had no way to figure out why spiders have the same gene that determines the pattern of veins in the wings of flies. You could sequence the spider and see that the “wing gene” was in its genome, but all you’d know was that it certainly wasn’t designing wings. Now, with less than $US100, an ordinary arachnologist can snip the wing gene out of a spider embryo and see what happens when that spider matures. If it’s obvious — maybe its claws fail to form — you’ve learned that the wing gene must have served a different purpose before insects branched off, evolutionarily, from the ancestor they shared with spiders.
Many times a gene may not seem like it has a reason to be part of the genome for a particular creature — like the wing gene in the spider example above. But by removing that gene, we can show the other characteristics it’s responsible for, like claw formation. The fact that it’s easy and cheap to do an experiment like that means it’s easy for any curious scientist to make a genetic change and see its effects.
Researchers have realised the potential of easy genetic manipulation — and the fact that it could transform health, medicine, energy production, and far more. This year alone, researchers are expected to publish more than 1,100 papers on CRISPR, which could reveal far more about what genes mean and what we can do with that information.
As Maxmen writes: “Pick your creature, pick your gene, and you can bet someone somewhere is giving it a go.”
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