Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The future is now! The rise of genome editing

It’s an exciting time to be a biologist! Every few years it seems like there is another significant technical breakthrough that allows biological research either to speed up exponentially, or to enter into areas that were previously inaccessible. In just the last decade or so we’ve seen the publication and digitisation of the human genome (without which most current life sciences work would be either impossible or impractical), the development of super-resolution microscopy (allowing us for the first time to see live biological processes on a truly molecular scale), the facilitation of DNA sequencing (making it economical on a large scale), and the invention or improvement of a whole range of technologies (enzyme-conjugation systems, flow cytometry, fluorescence-activated cell sorting etc.) that won’t mean much to anyone outside the field but that have revolutionised the way research is done. It’s been a long road, but it finally seems like the ambitions of researchers are starting to be matched by the available technology, whether it be computational, mechanical, chemical, or biological. The latest innovation that is taking the biology world by storm is the enormous progress that has recently been made in an area that has incalculable potential in both academic and clinical contexts: genome editing. In this post I will try to explain these recent advancements, why researchers are excited, and why you should be too!

What is genome editing?

Genome editing is pretty much what you’d expect from the name; editing the DNA sequence within the genome of a particular cell. This can involve adding DNA, removing DNA, swapping some DNA for other DNA, or moving DNA around within the genome. It is difficult to overstate how powerful a tool genome editing can be when it comes to biological research. Much of the work done in molecular life sciences is trying to work out how various molecules fit into the whole machine that is an organism – genome editing allows researchers to directly tinker with these molecules (typically proteins, which are of course encoded by a their associated DNA sequence) and observe the effects. This could involve removing the gene encoding a given protein from an organism and seeing what defects arise. Alternatively, you could introduce a specific mutation in a gene to see if that has functional relevance, or introduce DNA encoding fluorescent marker proteins into the end of your protein of interest to see where it goes and what it’s up to. Genome editing elevates researchers from the level of pure observers into direct manipulators of a system.