Science 3 min read

New Gene-Editing Technique Inserts DNA With no Cutting

Scientists discover a new CRISPR gene-editing technique that makes the whole process of replacing and adding gene sequences less prone to errors.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

To date, the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 eliminates diseases by cutting DNA and inserting new sequences to replace defective genes responsible for different genetic disorders. This or by just excising the disease-causing genes.

However, despite its revolutionary perspectives for medicine, this gene-editing tool is still unviable to be used on humans because the process is error-prone. As the genetic scissors of CRISPR are working on specific sequences in the genome, they can cut other sequences, triggering off-target effects and undesirable complications.

While gene editing seems to be one of the most promising ways to end cancer, two separate studies (by Novartis and Karolinska Institute) have recently linked CRISPR to cancer.

But there’s some news in this regard with a novel gene-editing CRISPR system that forgoes the scissors approach altogether.

CAST: CRISPR Gene-Editing Technique Without DNA Cuts

In a new joint-research, scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT have developed a new CRISPR gene-editing technique that can insert large DNA sequences without any cuts needed.

According to the researchers who called their new gene-editing technique CAST for CRISPR-associated transposase, the system is precise and safe at introducing DNA and reduces potential error-prone steps of the process. A paper published in the journal Science described the technique and how it was successfully tested on the Escherichia coli bacterial genome.

“One of the long-sought-after applications for molecular biology is the ability to introduce new DNA into the genome precisely, efficiently, and safely. We have worked on many bacterial proteins in the past to harness them for editing in human cells, and we’re excited to further develop CAST and open up these new capabilities for manipulating the genome,” explains senior author Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute.

“Transposase” in CAST’s name comes from “transposons,” which are transposable elements (TEs) that spontaneously change their position in a genome. Also known as the “jumping genes,” transposons’ potential application in gene-editing became a focus of research with the rise of CRISPR.

Using two cyanobacteria, the team could characterize and harness CAST, demonstrating how the system can be programmed to insert DNA at a precisely-designated location, which minimizes editing errors. Because there’s no DNA cutting involved, the cell doesn’t have to activate its repair machinery to fix the damage.

The CAST system provides a much more precise and efficient gene-editing tool than what previous solutions brought to the table. At the time being, CAST is at the “proof-of-principle study” stage, so there’s still a long way to go before it becomes an approved gene therapy, if ever.

Researchers are not sure yet if the technique will work on humans. However, it proved to be very successful on a bacterial genome, with a success rate of 80 percent compared to just 1 percent of the conventional CRISPR approach.

Read More: CRISPR-Cas 3: Researchers Create New Gene-Editing System

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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