A team of researchers at the Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, have found a way to use CRISPR technology to edit genes within a community, spearheading huge advancements in the medical industry.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology was developed by UC Berkeley researcher Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2012. The process of gene editing involves cutting specific strands of DNA using guide RNA, then letting the natural DNA repair process take over, according to an IGI press release.
While simultaneously developing CRISPR, campus earth and planetary sciences professor Jill Banfield’s team began working on gathering DNA from environments in order to sequence microorganisms or microbes present, according to IGI scientist Spencer Diamond. He said their goal was to study microbes in natural environments and observe how they interact.
“We would go into a natural environment, do DNA sequencing and get a snapshot of what might be happening in the microbial community,” Diamond said.
Now, the two teams have merged for a project to develop “community editing,” according to the press release. By combining the two groups, scientists have been able to develop a way to perform genetic editing without having to isolate microbes, Diamond said.
Previously, researchers had to isolate microorganisms to perform genetic editing, which was made especially difficult because microbes are not solitary organisms, according to Diamond.
“If you have a microbial community, you can’t do those types of genetic experiments because no one has developed the methods to do so,” Diamond said. “That’s exactly what this work did.”
Diamond said using this technology, doctors can use deletion to remove the strands of DNA that cause people to inherit genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia.
Antibiotics — which are often prescribed for such conditions — are indiscriminate and kill both good and harmful microorganisms, according to Diamond. He said that with this developed technology, doctors can target specific microbes, creating an alternative to antibiotics.
“By using community editing, we are basically able to target a specific sequence of microbe’s DNA in a complex mixture,” Diamond said. “We can do specific things to that microbe’s DNA, like cut it or have it produce a certain protein that tags it.”
According to Diamond, scientists must take three steps before this technology becomes commercially available: provide proof of technology, expand technology and develop a principle.
The IGI researchers are currently working to gather a more extensive tool set. Diamond expects it will be at least four years before scientists can use this technology commercially.
“A lot of the commercialization aspects are out of our hands,” Diamond said. “But it will take a very long time even to demonstrate safety and efficacy, upwards of ten years.”