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New CRISPR tools can cut, splice whole chromosomes

Experts are saying it's a "huge step forward for synthetic biology."

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  • Until recently, the gene-editing tool CRISPR has only been able to make changes within single genes.
  • The new tools allow scientists to cut and splice larger chunks of genetic material.
  • The findings will likely have major implications for a variety of research fields, and also allow researchers to create synthetic species that can produce molecules not made by natural organisms.


Since 2012, the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 has enabled scientists to target and modify DNA with remarkable precision. But one constraint of this technique has been that it's only able to make changes within single genes. Now, scientists have developed new tools that allow them to cut and splice large chunks of chromosomes, and to assemble new synthetic genomes from distinct strains.

The findings, published in a paper on August 30 in Science, likely have major implications for fields such as synthetic biology, computational biology, and biological computing, and could lead to better treatments for a wide array of diseases.

"This new paper is incredibly exciting and a huge step forward for synthetic biology," Anne Meyer, a synthetic biologist at the University of Rochester in New York who was not involved in the paper, told Science.

Unlike previous gene-editing tools, the new tools are able to make many precise cuts to long strands of DNA without leaving any scarring.

The researchers, as Robert F. Service wrote for Science, also altered "another well-known tool, an enzyme called lambda red recombinase, so it could glue the ends of the original chromosome—minus the removed portion—back together, as well as fuse the ends of the removed portion. Both circular strands of DNA are protected from endonucleases. The technique can create different circular chromosome pairs in other cells, and researchers can then swap chromosomes at will, eventually inserting whatever chunk they choose into the original genome."

"Now, I can make a series of changes in one segment and then another and combine them together. That's a big deal," Chang Liu, a synthetic biologist at the University of California, Irvine, told Science.

Why CRISPR Gene Editing Gives Its Creator Nightmares

The new tools will likely open the doors for scientists to explore many novel areas: create synthetic species that can produce molecules not made by natural organisms, write information into DNA for use as a storage device, and drive down the costs of medical research by making it easier to edit bacterial genomes on a larger scale.

However, using CRISPR to edit large sections of the human genome is unlikely to occur anytime soon, given the regulatory hurdles and ethical complications. After all, scientists aren't fully aware of the consequences of making small edits to DNA, much less larger cuts.

"We don't always fully understand the changes we're making," Alan Regenberg, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, told Science News. "Even if we do make the changes we want to make, there's still question about whether it will do what we want and not do things we don't want."

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

A girl and her mother take an afternoon nap in bed.

Personal Growth
  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
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