Scientists working to modify ‘people’s blueprint’ for better or for worse

1 min

Genetic engineering is being transformed by a new tool called Crispr. Scientists can use it to manipulate the genes of any living creature with astonishing ease. Its initial applications have been to target genetic disease, modify foods, and develop new drugs. What comes next is up to us.

Progress in genetic research has been coming swiftly. The number of U.S. patent applications citing Crispr technology jumped from four to more than 230 between 2012 and 2015. This year is already on track to double that figure. Almost every genetics lab in the world is converting to Crispr because it’s cheap, precise, and easy to use.

Researchers from MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as the National Institutes of Health, Rutgers University at New Brunswick, and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, have characterized a new CRISPR system that targets RNA, rather than DNA.

The new approach has the potential to open a powerful avenue in cellular manipulation. Whereas DNA editing makes permanent changes to the genome of a cell, the CRISPR-based RNA-targeting approach may allow researchers to make temporary changes that can be adjusted up or down, and with greater specificity and functionality than existing methods for RNA interference.

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