Hacking CRISPR: Gene editing is just the beginning

The real power of the biological tool lies in exploring how genomes work.

 

Whenever a paper about CRISPR–Cas9 hits the press, the staff at Addgene quickly find out. The non-profit company is where study authors often deposit molecular tools that they used in their work, and where other scientists immediately turn to get them. It is also where other scientists immediately turn to get their hands on these reagents. “We get calls within minutes of a hot paper publishing,” says Joanne Kamens, executive director of the company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

Addgene’s phones have been ringing a lot since early 2013, when researchers first reported1, 2, 3that they had used the CRISPR–Cas9 system to slice the genome in human cells at sites of their choosing. “It was all hands on deck,” Kamens says. Since then, molecular biologists have rushed to adopt the technique, which can be used to alter the genome of almost any organism with unprecedented ease and finesse. Addgene has sent 60,000 CRISPR-related molecular tools — about 17% of its total shipments — to researchers in 83 countries, and the company’s CRISPR-related pages were viewed more than one million times in 2015.

 

Much of the conversation about CRISPR–Cas9 has revolved around its potential for treating disease or editing the genes of human embryos, but researchers say that the real revolution right now is in the lab. What CRISPR offers, and biologists desire, is specificity: the ability to target and study particular DNA sequences in the vast expanse of a genome. And editing DNA is just one trick that it can be used for. Scientists are hacking the tools so that they can send proteins to precise DNA targets to toggle genes on or off, and even engineer entire biological circuits — with the long-term goal of understanding cellular systems and disease.

 

“For the humble molecular biologist, it’s really an extraordinarily powerful way to understand how the genome works,” says Daniel Bauer, a haematologist at the Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “It’s really opened the number of questions you can address,” adds Peggy Farnham, a molecular biologist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “It’s just so fun.”

 

There are two chief ingredients in the CRISPR–Cas9 system: a Cas9 enzyme that snips through DNA like a pair of molecular scissors, and a small RNA molecule that directs the scissors to a specific sequence of DNA to make the cut. The cell’s native DNA repair machinery generally mends the cut — but often makes mistakes.

 

That alone is a boon to scientists who want to disrupt a gene to learn about what it does. The genetic code is merciless: a minor error introduced during repair can completely alter the sequence of the protein it encodes, or halt its production altogether. As a result, scientists can study what happens to cells or organisms when the protein or gene is hobbled.

 

But there is also a different repair pathway that sometimes mends the cut according to a DNA template. If researchers provide the template, they can edit the genome with nearly any sequence they desire at nearly any site of their choosing.

 

In 2012, as laboratories were racing to demonstrate how well these gene-editing tools could cut human DNA, one team decided to take a different approach. “The first thing we did: we broke the scissors,” says Jonathan Weissman, a systems biologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

 

Weissman learned about the approach from Stanley Qi, a synthetic biologist now at Stanford University in California, who mutated the Cas9 enzyme so that it still bound DNA at the site that matched its guide RNA, but no longer sliced it. Instead, the enzyme stalled there and blocked other proteins from transcribing that DNA into RNA. The hacked system allowed them to turn a gene off, but without altering the DNA sequence4. The team then took its ‘dead’ Cas9 and tried something new: the researchers tethered it to part of another protein, one that activates gene expression. With a few other tweaks, they had built a way to turn genes on and off at will5.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.nature.com

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