A lot has been made of CRISPR lately -- but what is it, and why do scientists see so much potential?
It’s got a really long name and a really technical function — but this seemingly obscure medical tool could be leading the fight against viruses in the future.
The “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” better known as CRISPR, are segments of prokaryotic DNA that contains short repetitions of base sequences. Sound uninteresting? It could very well prevent a host of future diseases and save countless lives somewhere down the line.
As we reported recently, scientists have recently found that CRISPR is not limited to altering DNA, but also RNA, which means it could totally disrupt and destroy viruses before they can wreak havoc on our bodies, an exciting medical breakthrough that could revolutionize treatments, according to an American Association for the Advancement of Science statement.
Basically, CRISPR can be used to program a bacterium to break down an essential part of its structure, or to tell a cancer cell to stop making vital proteins. Scientists are essentially trying to figure out a way to tell viruses to self-destruct.
While we’re nowhere close to widespread use of this technique yet, it’s an exciting new area of research that is opening up new frontiers for medicine, and it could be used against a wide variety of illnesses, particularly those that are currently very hard to treat.
“The finding holds important implications for a range of biological applications, such as marking, modifying and modulating RNA,” the statement reads. “Roughly half of all bacteria species utilize an immune system called the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated genes (CRISPR-Cas), which protects the microbes from viruses and other invading DNA. While much focus in recent years has been directed at the ability to harness CRISPR-Cas systems to edit DNA, systems that specifically target RNA have been less studied.
“Through a series of experiments, the researchers demonstrate that … it can be used to knockout messenger RNA of bacteria in vivo,” it continues. “The team found that it initially focuses on its target RNA, followed by a second phase in which it degrades RNA in a less specific way. Other RNA-targeting immune systems likely exist, the authors say, and further research will lead to the development of programmable molecular tools for in vivo RNA manipulation.”