A study published in the journal Science reveals just how far researchers still have to go.
Genetic engineering has popped up in the headlines again after a breakthrough study pushed the CRISPR-Cas9 editing technique to a new level of precision. According to a report from Nature, the technique used for cutting and pasting genes has now been adapted to work for cutting RNA. The breakthrough could give researchers an entire new set of tools for studying and attempting to treat diseases.
The study was published by a team led by Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute. Researchers used CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” to begin splicing and rearranging RNA strands. Published in the journal Science, the findings could lead to techniques that could significantly reduce the burden of a number of terrible diseases.
According ot Zhang, “Nature has already invented all these really interesting mechanisms. We’re just trying to play with them and learn how they work… then turn them into tools that will be useful to us.”
The method uses an enzyme known as C2c2 to target the RNA. It requires minimal manipulation, which decreases the risk of mistakes and complications throughout the process. The method has not yet been shown to work in mammal cells, but the researchers believe the technique will prove useful in developing new treatments and methodologies for dealing with disease.
According to Gene Yeo, the author of an accompanying study that also investigates the use of CRISPR technology for editing RNA, “I think we’ll see an avalanche of these tools that will enable us to monitor and study RNA. This helps us think about RNA as not just an intermediate molecule between DNA and protein.”
The idea of using genetic editing tools to manipulate RNA is a bit easier to swallow for many than full-on genetic engineering. RNA acts as an intermediary step between DNA and the formation of proteins necessary for numerous life processes. While edits to DNA strands are permanent, manipulating RNA could simply steer genes in one direction or another.
Further research on the subject is certainly necessary before any life-saving techniques can be developed, but the method shows serious promise for the future.
“The CRISPR-Cas adaptive immune system defends microbes against foreign genetic elements via DNA or RNA-DNA interference. We characterize the Class 2 type VI-A CRISPR-Cas effector C2c2 and demonstrate its RNA-guided RNase function. C2c2 from the bacterium Leptotrichia shahii provides interference against RNA phage,” reads the abstract to the study. “In vitro biochemical analysis show that C2c2 is guided by a single crRNA and can be programmed to cleave ssRNA targets carrying complementary protospacers. In bacteria, C2c2 can be programmed to knock down specific mRNAs. Cleavage is mediated by catalytic residues in the two conserved HEPN domains, mutations in which generate catalytically inactive RNA-binding proteins. These results broaden our understanding of CRISPR-Cas systems and suggest that C2c2 can be used to develop new RNA-targeting tools.”