CRISPR: This Gene Editing Technology Is The Next Big Thing
It has had a lot of hype surrounding it, and rightly so. But what is CRISPR? And how does it work?
CRISPR is short for ‘CRISPR RNA’ and refers to a way of making new genetic material called a regulatory RNA (RNA). It is a nucleic acid that makes it possible for DNA ‘letters’ to move into a specific location on a cell’s template strand (called a transcription initiation site).
A CRISPR RNA can only be made in one of two ways – through a genetic mutation that involves changes in the nucleotides that make up DNA, or through an external chemical agent such as a virus. These two methods are the major reasons why there are so many genetic diseases and ailments – dyslexia, muscular dystrophy, and sickle cell anaemia among them. Since CRISPR acts by ‘modifying’ the RNA coding, it can introduce corrective mutations that alter the way the DNA ‘reads’ the genes it needs to perform the desired task. For instance, a person with muscular dystrophy could get a genetic mutation that makes their muscles respond to stimuli much faster than normal.
One major benefit of CRISPR is that it can be used both in repairing and introducing mutations to genes – thus increasing the power of genetic repair. But it also has some disadvantages, such as problems caused by the introduction of insertion mutations at the wrong site (offset sequencing). Also, since CRISPR is still relatively new, there are still a lot of questions and doubts about its safety, efficiency, and even effectiveness.
The first research into CRISPR was carried out by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH); it funded a study called Gene Expression in Plants. This study showed that plants could learn from natural genetic variation in response to temperature, stress, and nutritional condition; this research paved the way for the development of CRISPR technology. Since then, a lot more research has been carried out on this subject, and the technology has been refined so that it can now be safely used in human beings.
However, critics of CRISPR worry that it is only a temporary solution to a long-term problem. It would be great if genetic editing could solve all the diseases and health conditions we have today, but unfortunately, it cannot. The fact remains that every human being has a certain set of chromosomes, and each of them has a specific set of instructions for making the entire organism function properly.
Another criticism of CRISPR technology is that it has not yet been patented, although there are various organizations with the necessary funding to make a patent for the editing method. This is a setback for the medical researchers who have spent years developing the CRISPR technology. For them, CRISPR is a very welcome addition to the family of genetic technologies, since it allows them to edit out unwanted traits or eliminate them altogether. The fact is that for the moment, CRISPR remains in the experimental stage.
If ever the research comes into being and CRISPR is used effectively in human beings, it will be like an end to the worries of parents who want to see their children healthy and free from disease.