CRISPR Cas-9 the Technology Must Have in Labs and in Your Educational Portfolio

CRISPR-Cas9 hopefully does not sound completely alien to you. This genetic engineering technique was awarded the 2020 Chemistry Nobel Prize, received by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennnifer A. Doudna – the only earned by two women co-jointly.

This method was originally discovered in bacteria to fend off attacks from pathogens such as viruses. The bacteria essentially cuts off invading viral DNA and stores them in arrays to not only recognise but also defend itself if the same virus attacks again. As such, it is analogous to our adaptive immune system where B and T cells that have reacted against the pathogen are retained as “memory cells”. Upon a second invasion by the same pathogen, these memory cells have a more efficient and faster “killing response”. 

The CRISPR-Cas9 system is comprised of an enzyme Cas9 pair of “molecular scissors” which trims DNA at a specific location and a guide RNA (gRNA) which, as the name suggests “guides” the Cas9 to the right DNA sequence. The Cas9 relies on the gRNA to bind to the target DNA and then initiates a cut on both DNA strands. 

The above described mechanism has been repurposed in labs to act as genetic scissors for rewriting and editing the code of life. It allows the precise and targeted modifications of DNA in genomes across labs globally. CRISPR- Cas9 sparks new hope in revolutionising cancer therapies, cure inherited diseases, producing innovative crops. However, with great scientific tools comes a social responsibility and ethical considerations. 

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Carrying out gene editing on germline cells (a reproductive cell either the egg or sperm) however is illegal in most countries as “off-target” problems have not been fully resolved. Scientists are currently trying to limit the cutting of other genes rather than the one that was originally targeted as this could have detrimental effects on the individual. 

The much feared “designer babies” are unfortunately no longer science fiction after a Chinese Researcher created gene-edited babies- Lulu and Nana were born with modified DNA to make them “resistant to HIV”. This was condemned by the scientific community including the Nobel Prize laureates. In Science it is sometimes best to impose self-bans until we fully understand the repercussions this may have, even if the technology exists. Such major ethical issues arise from CRISPR-Cas9 misuse with potential irreversible consequences and life-threatening effects. These need to be carefully considered when making policies.

Should you wish to further nourish your scientific curiosity on this topic and keep up to date with the latest technologies, you should register to the CRISPR: Revolutionising Genome Editing Advanced course.  This self-learning course is led by international experts in the field and flexibly-paced. It is affordable and at the end of it you will receive a CPD accredited certificate. Next time you’ll hear about CRISPR-Cas9, you’ll now hopefully be able to impress your family at dinner!