WTF is… CRISPR

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CRISPR technology is a scientific revolution capable of changing the world. Abbreviated as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA that could help edit the genome.

Adapted from the natural defence mechanism of bacteria, CRISPR technology is used to manipulate or edit our genes. Commonly pronounced as “Crisper”, this technology has the potential to transform everything, from scientific research to agriculture, medicine and industry.

Technical Stuff

CRSIPR-Cas9 technology utilises CRISPR sequence, CRISPR RNA and the Cas-9 protein which cuts the strands of foreign DNA.

In bacteria, the CRISPR immunity works using the CRISPR RNA to guide the Cas9 protein to the DNA of the foreign invader, which is then chopped up and destroyed.

In more complex organisms, CRISPR Cas9, along with the guide RNA, moves along the strands of DNA until it binds to the sequence which matches with that of the guide RNA. The Cas9 then cuts the DNA at the target. As the body tries to repair the cut, mutations are introduced, which could result in inactivation of the gene. CRISPR can also be utilized for the replacement of faulty (or undesirable) genes.

Applications

CRISPR technology finds its application in the agriculture and food industries to develop bacterial cultures that are resistant to viruses, thereby improving their sustainability and life span. It is also employed in the agriculture sector, to produce high yielding crops, more tolerant and possessing improved nutritional properties.

However, its most important application lies in the field of medicine. CRISPR can bring huge innovations to cure genetic diseases by knocking out the genes responsible for the disease’s cause. Research is already underway to use CRISPR technology to treat genetic diseases like Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and breast and ovarian cancers. Human trials have already begun in China where CRISPR is already being used to treat cancers of stomach, lung and oesophagus, and HIV infections. The technique employs a patient’s own immune cells that are genetically altered and reinfused to attack the rogue cells.
Additionally, CRISPR technology can also be used to develop new and more powerful anti-viral and antibiotics to precisely target and eradicate the deadly bacteria and viruses like HIV, HERPES and even Coronavirus.

Future Prospects

CRISPR technology is still in its infancy stage and requires a lot of research before it can be applied to humans en-masse. But the possibilities that arise with such a discovery are endless. It could be used for more advanced genetic manipulations like “designer babies”. The day is not far when CRISPR will be used to edit the genome of the human embryo and the reproductive cells thereby allowing the humans to select the traits they find more desirous like intelligence or athleticism in babies. So, there are many ethical debates to be had around this technology.

Further Reading

http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2014/crispr-a-game-changing-genetic-engineering-technique/

https://www.vox.com/2018/7/23/17594864/crispr-cas9-gene-editing

https://www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html

https://www.gwern.net/docs/genetics/editing/2017-normile.pdf

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