CRISPR-Cas9 – a customizable tool that cuts and inserts small pieces of DNA at specific areas along a DNA strand. (Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH)
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CRISPR as a gene-editing tool made a prodigious leap forward in science. In 2015, it was heralded as Science’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year.1 It stymied other impressive contenders like the Ebola vaccine. It supersedes other gene-editing predecessors, such as TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) and ZFNs (zinc finger nucleases). Unlike these two, CRISPR does not need a custom protein for every targeted DNA sequence. It does, however, require a guide RNA (gRNA). Even so, the process of designing a gRNA is easier and less time-consuming than creating a custom protein. For that, it is favoured over other gene-editing tools.
The rise of a revolutionary gene-editing tool
The discovery of CRISPR was indeed phenomenal. Short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR swiftly opened avenues for biological and medical innovations. Initially identified as a family of viral DNA snippets, it was discovered to inherently protect bacteria against re-invading bacteriophages akin to our immune system’s adaptive immunity. This natural gene-editing system in bacteria has two key players: gRNA and Cas9 (CRISPR-associated enzyme). The gRNA finds and binds to specific DNA target. The Cas9 goes where the gRNA is, and then cuts the DNA target, disabling the latter. Now, scientists exploit it as a way to splice specific DNA targets and then replace them with a DNA that would yield the desired outcome. For instance, CRISPR can be used to correct physiological anomalies caused by gene mutations or defective genes.
CRISPR – a versatile gene-editing tool
CRISPR has been shown to have the potential to slow down the progression of cancers. It can switch off a gene in immune cells. The altered immune cells can be designed to fight cancer. In 2016, US FDA approved the clinical trial study where CRISPR technology would be used to cure patients with cancers. 2 Not only in biology and medicine, the use of CRISPR has also extended to agriculture and animal husbandry. Through it, the genes of crops and livestock can be improved. They can be made more resistant to certain diseases.
CRISPR causing gene damage?
One of the issues raised against CRISPR is ethical concerns. Similar to what was ethically raised against other gene-editing technologies, the concern is chiefly about the notion of bias and “playing God”. What are the standards that will define and permit judgment over a gene to be construed as either “good” or “bad”? But taking aside this issue, there is another issue being hurled against CRISPR. Marked of recent as “breaking news”, a study published in Nature warned about the possible pathogenic consequences of CRISPR when the researchers identified on-target mutagenesis in the form of large deletions and complex genomic rearrangements at target sites in mitotically active cells of mice and humans.3 This is not the first time that a study questioned the safety of CRISPR technology. In 2017, researchers from Columbia University reported that it led to hundreds of unexpected mutations. Nevertheless, this claim was retracted when they failed to replicate their result.
CRISPR as a gene-editing tool wields so much potential beyond one can imagine. It is easy to use, feasible, and far-reaching. One can expect certain issues to come along the way and slow down its fast-paced utilization in different fields. It is a no-nonsense stumbling block for we belong in a community that moves forward through social discourse fueled by scientific nosiness and reasoning. Probing the dangers of CRISPR should be as extensive as exploring its benefits. We must be not too quick to adulate without first bringing out in the open its risks — especially ones that are as crucial as mutations and gene damage.
— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga
- Science News Staff. (2015). And Science’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year is… ScienceMag.org. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/12/and-science-s-2015-breakthrough-year
- Reardon, S. (2016). First CRISPR clinical trial gets green light from US panel. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/news/first-crispr-clinical-trial-gets-green-light-from-us-panel-1.20137
- Kosicki, M., Tomberg, K. & Bradley, A. (2018 July 16). Repair of double-strand breaks induced by CRISPR–Cas9 leads to large deletions and complex rearrangements. Nature Biotechnology. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4192
- Dockrill, P. (2018 July 16). BREAKING: CRISPR Could Be Causing Extensive Mutations And Genetic Damage After All. ScienceAlert.com. Retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/crispr-editing-causes-frequent-extensive-mutations-genetic-damage-target-deletion-site
- CRISPR: Off-Target Effects and their Concerns – BioTechniques. (2019, November 27). BioTechniques. https://www.biotechniques.com/crispr/what-are-off-target-effects-and-why-are-they-concerning/