New CRISPR tools can cut, splice whole chromosomes

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

Pixabay
  • 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."

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Artist rendering of a supervolcano.

Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • The supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park could cause an "ultra-catastrophe," warns an extinction events writer.
  • The full eruption of the volcano last happened 640,000 years ago.
  • The blast could kill billions and make United States uninhabitable.
Keep reading Show less

Ashamed over my mental illness, I realized drawing might help me – and others – cope

Just before I turned 60, I discovered that sharing my story by drawing could be an effective way to both alleviate my symptoms and combat that stigma.

Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

I've lived much of my life with anxiety and depression, including the negative feelings – shame and self-doubt – that seduced me into believing the stigma around mental illness: that people knew I wasn't good enough; that they would avoid me because I was different or unstable; and that I had to find a way to make them like me.

Keep reading Show less

Sexual activity linked to higher cognitive function in older age

A joint study by two England universities explores the link between sex and cognitive function with some surprising differences in male and female outcomes in old age.

The results of this one-of-a-kind study suggest there are significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing/word recall in men.
Image by Lightspring on Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A joint study by the universities of Coventry and Oxford in England has linked sexual activity with higher cognitive abilities in older age.
  • The results of this study suggest there are significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing/word recall in men. In women, however, there was a significant association between sexual activity in word recall alone - number sequencing was not impacted.
  • The differences in testosterone (the male sex hormone) and oxytocin (a predominantly female hormone) may factor into why the male cognitive level changes much more during sexual activity in older age.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…