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First used in 2013, the CRISPR method for genome editing is now revolutionizing genetic engineering thanks to its simplicity, precision and cost-effectiveness - an experiment cost's around $ 60 in materials. The core principle of the CRISPR system involves programming an enzyme to bind to a specific section of an organism's genome, cut it, and repair it. The technique is important in loss-of-function, gain-of-function, preclinical and clinical research. 

Why Edit Genomes?

Before jumping into where CRISPR comes from and how it works, it is helpful to first understand why editing genes is useful. There are six main reasons why scientists would wish to modify a gene:

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This list is not exhaustive, and the applications of genome editing grow more diverse every day. In summary however, genome editing is valued for its ability to precisely modify one or more genetic elements in an organism in order to elucidate its function, or modify a trait in an advantageous way.

Why use CRISPR for Genome Editing?


 

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ImageCaptionCRISPR & Cas9 concept and vision
ImageSourceLinkhttps://youtu.be/Qb2412K0bFM
ImageSourceSynBio.Info
ImageSourceYear2015
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It was only very recently that scientists figured out that naturally-occurring bacterial CRISPR systems could be repurposed into precision-guided genome-editing tools. The value biologists see in the CRISPR system is its programmability, precision, and ease of use

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CRISPR vectors are widely available and they are fairly uniform in their construction, generally only requiring a guide or protospacer sequence to be inserted into them, in order to become fully functional. This means that a laboratory only needs one CRISPR vector in order to begin editing any gene in the specific organism that the vector is optimised for.

Each time the lab wants to modify a gene, all they need to do is purchase synthetic DNA, insert it into the right section of the vector using standard PCR or cloning techniques (very low-tech for most labs) and transform it into the cell of interest (also very low-tech). While many inside and outside the biotech field refer to the low costs of CRISPR (starting at $60 for a vector), this factoid masks the requirement to have a laboratory with the right equipment and staffed by personnel with the capabilities to use it, meaning that the actual costs and setup requirements are much more than this.

Nevertheless, older genome editing technologies (ZFNs and TALENs) are far more difficult to use, and essentially required a laboratory to invest in high-tech protein engineering facilities in order to create a custom nuclease protein every time they want to edit a single gene. This made the older genome editing technologies far more long-winded and expensive to use when compared with CRISPR.

In any case, CRISPR genome editing is incredibly versatile - by changing a guide sequence, or changing the nuclease used (as each nuclease has a different PAM), it is possible to find a way of targeting almost any gene in any organism. TALENs and ZFNs on the other hand can only be targeted towards specific sequences, and their coverage of a genome is limited. For CRISPR, as scientists discover or engineer more nucleases, it is likely only a matter of time before all genomes have total coverage of possible cut sites, enabling all areas of the genome to be edited with high fidelity. 

What are the Applications of CRISPR?

Six general application's of CRISPR

  1. To understand the role that specific mutations in specific genes influence a particular trait of an organism
  2. To create new traits that do not exist in nature 
  3. To recreate known stable mutations in cell lines that can serve as models of a particular disease 
  4. To create stable mutations in whole organisms (plants / animals) and create strains that can be used in research or commerce
  5. To create gene therapies in order to treat or prevent congenital diseases, infections, or cancers
  6. To create gene drives that can modify populations of organisms in a specific way (highly experimental at the time of writing)

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Public Discussion about CRISPR

CRISPR genome editing has received a great deal of press and public attention in the last year, and discussion of its implications is being had in a variety of media and forums, such as Wired, MIT Technology Review, Radiolab and even SXSW Interactive 2016:

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Who is involved? 

There are around 50.000 researchers world wide already working with this technology - here are a few of the most notable labs and companies:

Research Groups of Note

Many research groups have led the way in the development and uptake of CRISPR genome editing technologies and their applicaitons:

Companies of Note

A number of companies have formed or adopted CRISPR technology in order to unlock its true potential across a variety of applications:

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