Genomic Editing

What is Genomic Editing?

Genomic editing is a popular technique that alters the genome by adding, deleting, or replacing sections of DNA. Genomic editing introduces cutting molecules that have been engineered to break DNA strands. The DNA strands need to be cut in order to introduce changes to the genome. Our DNA carries information on how we look and function, so there are potential risks in breaking apart our genetic instructions. Although the technique is not perfect, the cutting molecules are programmed to break the DNA at precise locations, allowing scientists to control where and how the genome can be safely edited. Ultimately, developing these genomic editing techniques will advance our knowledge of genetics, biotechnology, and medicine, and broadening the applications of these techniques is the next step in making notable improvements to our health.

How it Works

CRISPR/Cas9 is the current leading genomic editing tool. CRISPR/Cas9 is made up of two parts: the Cas9 enzyme and the guide RNA. You can think of the enzyme as a pair of scissors. The Cas9 enzyme is responsible for cutting the DNA strands, and the guide RNA, which you can think of as the hand controlling the scissors, ensures that the DNA is not cut randomly. The RNA first guides the Cas9 enzyme to the desired DNA strand. Next, the enzyme cuts the DNA strand. Breaking the strand allows the pieces of DNA to then be added, removed, or repaired. After the alteration, the DNA closes the break and the new changes become part of the genome.

The Future of Genomic Editing

Genomic editing using CRISPR/Cas9 is mainly still in the research phase. However, this editing technique is beginning to transition from research studies on animal models to human clinical trials. CRISPR/Cas9 has been successfully used in a few extreme life-threatening cases on adult somatic cells. Somatic cells are the non-reproductive cells and any changes made to them will not be passed to your future children. Further development in editing technologies for these cells are opening doors for CRISPR/Cas9 to be used in therapeutic applications of genetic-caused diseases. Recently, scientists have taken a successful step in development as both the United States and China have been approved to begin CRISPR/Cas9 clinical trials for cancer therapy applications.

In the far future, researchers hope to use CRISPR/Cas9 in editing germline cells. Germline cells are the cells that pass on your genetic information; therefore, we could potentially use editing to stop inheritance of genetic disorders. This type of editing is controversial and has many ethical concerns, but gaining more knowledge about genomic editing suggests that scientists will be able to reach this feat someday.

Learn More

As genome editing technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 become rapidly advanced, there are many questions and challenges down the road for researchers. Learn more about these questions and challenges ahead, and the common misconceptions of CRISPR/Cas9 in this TED Talk.

Did You Know?

The modifying abilities of CRISPR/Cas9 was discovered from the common bacteria found in yogurt and cheese.