AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: genetic diseases

What does the future hold for CRISPR-Cas9?

Genome editing, or the technologies in which scientists can change the DNA of an organism, is on the rise, especially with its latest development, CRISPR-Cas9, the most efficient method of all of the methods to edit DNA.

Like many other discoveries in science, CRISPR-Cas9 was discovered through nature. Scientists learned that certain bacteria capture snippets of DNA from invading viruses, making DNA segments called CRISPR arrays, helping them remember the virus to prepare for future invasions of that virus. When they are confronted with that virus again, RNA segments from the CRISPR arrays are created which target the DNA of the virus, causing the enzyme Cas9 to cut the virus’ DNA apart, which would destroy the virus.


We use the same method in genome editing with CRISPR-Cas9 by creating RNA that binds to a specific sequence in a DNA strand and the Cas9, causing the Cas9 to cut the DNA at that specific sequence. Once this is done, the scientists create a sequence to replace the one that was cut to get the desired genome.

This technology is most prominently used to attempt to treat diseases, where the somatic cells’ genomes are altered which affect tissues, as well as prevent genetic diseases where the sperm or egg’s genome is changed. However, the latter causes some serious ethical concerns of whether we should use this technology to enhance human traits. But this begs the question that if we start using it more and more to prevent genetic diseases, will this open the door for it to be used in new ways?

Cas9: A Clue Into Making Gene Editing Safer

CRISPR is a revolutionary system that edits the DNA of living organisms with ease. The gene-editing technology offers scientists insight into genetic diseases and is widely used in biotech and agriculture, as well as to treat cancer and viral infections. But the CRISPR system and its mechanisms are not yet fully understood. However, researchers at the Ohio State University have reported that they have figured out the mechanism of how the CRISPR system figures out where and when to cut the DNA strands. This is particularly revolutionary as it provides insight into preventing gene-cutting errors.

Cas9 is an enzyme that is used by the system to target and cut out or insert specific genes. In the second of two paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the team invalidates the widely-held belief that the enzyme cuts DNA evenly. Professor of chemistry and biochemistry Zucai Suo explains that instead of cutting both sides of the DNA double-helix to the same length, Cas9  actually trims each side to uneven lengths. Ohio State doctoral student Austin Raper and his co-authors determined that the two different parts of the “Cas9 molecule communicate with each other to set the location and timing of a cut”. The first part of the molecule sets forth to cut its respective DNA strand and changes shape and signals to the second part to cut its respective second strand.

Crystal Structure of Cas9 Enzyme

Suo says that he hopes their work allows for scientists to minimize and eventually eliminate gene-editing errors. CRISPR rarely target unintended genes, but gene-editing errors can have very serious consequences. For example, if the system accidentally cut a tumor suppressor gene from a person’s DNA, they would be much more likely to develop cancer. As Raper says, it is important to understand CRISPR and the Cas9 enzyme mechanisms in order to allow CRISPR to advance to its full potential.



Crispr-Cas9: Coming to a Theater Near You

This sequel to GATTACA is to be released shortly, and this time, they’re transcending the movie screen and bringing the experience to reality!

Crispr-Cas9 is a fairly recent DNA-editing technique that has been developed, and allows for extremely easy and precise gene editing, a development said to be at least on par with PCR for bio engineering. In many ways, this is great. Now biologists won’t have to spend the time nor undergo the difficulty of creating variant DNA through old methods, meaning that all these cool genetic breakthroughs should be happening at an unprecedented pace! The problem is, it may be going too fast for humans to wrap their head around.

Similar to the ethical questions raised by the film GATTACA, countries and scientists are debating what regulations should be put on this new and powerful tool. With Crispr-Cas9, the possibility to genetically modify humans becomes a very real option to consider. Scientists could remove DNA sequences which lead to defects and diseases such as albinism and Huntington’s Disease. Or anything else, really.

(The miracle protein)

The main point of Crispr-Cas9 is not necessarily the ability it gives to scientists to easily modify DNA, but the increased rate at which we can understand what specific sequences of DNA do by altering them. Not only are we more able to modify DNA, we are now able to figure it out at breakneck speed.


Where it gets complex is, as always, how humans deal with it. Some people, such as Mark Leach, whose daughter has down-syndrome, believes that children with disabilities not only are still able to live rich lives, but also teach others to be more compassionate. Although debating if I would choose to let my child have down-syndrome or not for that reason seems like an absurd consideration, and most likely a coping mechanism, the point still stands that some people are uneasy with fixing genetic-related problems because “they wouldn’t be the same person.” (That’s the point!)

People are really afraid of change, aren’t they?


However, for those on the more lethal/completely disabling part of the genetic spectrum, the answer is more than clear.  Charles Sabine, the brother of the renown British lawyer John Sabine, who both have Huntington’s Disease at varying stages, says “If there was a room somewhere where someone said, ‘Look, you can go in there and have your DNA changed,’ I would be there breaking the door down.” Similarly, Matt Wilsey, a parent of a child with a terminal genetic illness, is awestruck at the ridiculousness of the situation: “As a parent with an incredibly sick child, what are we supposed to do — sit by on the sidelines while my child dies?” The oddity of the situation is, we have the capability to start figuring out how to solve these genetic issues with a very effective and efficient technique, it’s just that humans are riding the brakes, trying to slow down the almost inexorable progress of the freight train that is Crispr-Cas9. The irony is that many are afraid with tampering with the “sanctity” of human embryos. I would agree, except that humans defile it all the time. Birth defects, genetic diseases, miscarriages, etc. Of course, this is not intentional, but the parents have the largest hand in these outcomes, as they provide all the material,genetic and otherwise, to create the embryo, fetus, and eventually child. We are already making horrible mistakes with human embryo’s that cripple or kill the resulting child through the natural birth process. Personally, I would go off of this to say we should at least learn from this, so we could eventually progress far enough to prevent these things from ever happening, but I only ask all of the readers to keep this in mind: Nature (very badly) screws up too.


(The process Cas9 facilitates)

I’m not saying that we should be careless with this new and potentially dangerous or aberrant-spawning technology, but I think it’s time that humans come to terms with the fact that their world, and their lives, are entering a new era of existence. For millennia, structured humans have lived in a world where the outside world is the only thing we can manipulate, but now the very structure and formation of ourselves as well. I understand that such a change from a thousands-year-running viewpoint can be hard to make. We’ve never had to think about these things before as a species, because it wasn’t understood and out of our reach. It is daunting. It is terrifying. Only because it is unknown. But how are we to learn, to benefit, from this great potential, if we are too afraid to explore it? I understand that like any form of potential, it can go either way, but this is a great new time of possibilities that simply won’t go away, but reemerge constantly.

I think it’s time we gathered the courage to face it.

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