CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPR is a genome editing technology that is revolutionising a number of application areas, including medicine, agriculture, and even biofuels. Genome editing is used to make changes to DNA in an organism, allowing DNA to be added, removed or altered in specific locations. This results in changes to a number of characteristics, from physical traits and disease risk to how an organism performs certain functions.
CRISPR and CRISPR associated (Cas) protein systems are commonly found in bacteria, and play an important role in fending off attacks from viruses and other foreign bodies, primarily by chopping up and destroying the DNA of an invader. The natural CRISPR-Cas9 system has been taken and modified over the years to produce an adaptable genome editing technology that can be used in plants, animals and humans, creating a technology that is simpler, faster and cheaper than many other methods.
CRISPR has the potential to cure a whole range of inherited diseases that are currently incurable by targeting the ‘bad’ gene, and either replacing it, fixing it or removing it entirely. There is already promising data on the use of CRISPR for treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in dogs. And, for some conditions, it’s not just research anymore; clinical trials are underway in multiple areas.
For example, one CRISPR-Cas9 therapeutic is being evaluated in a Phase I/II clinical trial for treating patients suffering from severe blood disorders – beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease. Another Phase I/II trial is using CRISPR to target Leber’s congenital amaurosis (type 10) – the most common cause of inherited childhood blindness – which affects three in 100,000 births. The start of CRISPR clinical trials is just the tip of the iceberg, and it is exciting to see how this technology will benefit the medical sector, but it doesn’t stop there!
CRISPR systems are also being investigated as a method of sustainably feeding the world, unlocking new beneficial traits in plants and animals by editing the DNA. This includes improving resistance to pests and weather, which in turn can increase harvests in harsh environments, while also reducing the need for pesticides. At the same time, the nutritional content of ingredients can be boosted, shelf life can be extended and flavour can be enhanced!
It appears that the sky is the limit for food applications; CRISPR could even help those with allergies, by eliminating certain triggers – creating gluten-free wheat or hypoallergenic nuts, for instance.
Of course, food production isn’t the only issue facing the planet as the global population rapidly rises. The overwhelming energy crisis is at the forefront of issues facing humanity. Bioenergy is already a promising answer to the world’s energy crisis, however, producing high levels of biofuels is difficult. Currently, bioenergy can only meet a fraction of global energy demand.
In swoops CRISPR, which has already doubled yields of biodiesel from algae! It has also been used to improve the tolerance of yeast – important in the process of converting sugars to biofuels – to harmful pre-treatment chemicals. With further development, these methods have the ability to sustainably power the world.
CRISPR-Cas9 is enabling science that was previously impossible. Its ease-of-use, affordability and accuracy is generating highly promising results in a number of fields.