(REUTERS) British scientists are testing cutting edge gene editing techniques in mice, by inserting a jelly fish gene that makes their skin green.
The research uses CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing tool that works like a pair of ‘molecular scissors’, cutting out and replacing specific parts of a cell’s DNA. Scientists hail CRISPR‘s potential for treating genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia.
The team at the University of Bath in southwest England describes the CRISPR ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule as the satellite navigation system for the Cas9 protein. It guides the protein to the defective part of the genome, which it then removes, directing the cell to repair the cut.
The team, led by reproductive biologist Dr Tony Perry, says the fluorescent green jelly fish gene given to the mice in their study becomes integrated into the entire mouse genome. The scientists can then see whether targeting the genome with CRISPR-Cas9 technology works.
“We take what would have been green embryos and make them into non-green embryos, so it’s a great way of demonstrating the method,” Dr Perry told Reuters.
So far the results show that the CRISPR-Cas9 technology allows for gene editing with a high degree of success and few unpredicted effects.
Perry sees the technique being used in plants and livestock species within five years.
“As more of the ground rules become established we understand better how the system works, in particular livestock species,” he said.
The technology could also be used to edit plant genomes to make them resistant to disease and improve crop yields. Researchers say this differs from traditional controversial genetic modification that adds a new gene from another organism.
It’s hoped the technology could one day be used for gene editing in humans. In 2016 scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine used it to repair the gene that causes sickle cell disease in stem cells of diseased patients. This could herald a cure for the disease which affects up to 5 million people around the world.
In sickle cell disease the body makes mutant, sickle-shaped haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues. It’s caused by a single mutation in a gene that makes a haemoglobin protein.
“If you think about genetic disease it really refers to a condition specified by the sequence of letters in the DNA in a patient. We now have a technology that allows correction of a sequence that would lead to normally functioning cells. There are many diseases that are have known genetic causes that we now have in principle a way to cure,” professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California Berkeley Jennifer Doudna told Reuters.
Her Doudna Lab team at Berkeley has also corrected the genetic mutation that causes sickle cell disease using CRISPR-Cas9.
Some scientists warn about the ethical dangers of using gene editing in embryos.
“It will immediately create this new form of consumer eugenics in which people choose the cosmetic characteristics and abilities of their children and enhance them to perform better than other people’s children,” said director of Human Genetics Alert Dr David King.
The British team says the use of the technique in human embryos is a long way off, but the research in mice presents a golden – or possibly green – opportunity to eradicate inheritable disease.
Video produced by Jasper Pickering.