Genetic engineering is perhaps the most significant power that humans hold currently. It is a broad term directed at a variety of tools and techniques that scientists use to manipulate the genome of cells.

Genetic engineering can be used to change single cells, groups or entire organisms. Science can switch genes around between species, upregulate or enhance genes, or silence genes. What can be done with this technology is practically limitless, and it could be for good or evil outcomes.

No single tool has garnered more attention recently than CRISPR. CRISPR gene editing has exploded and evolved into a variety of novel gene-editing tools, now called the CRISPR tool kit.

Science has been dipping into this tool kit often, and hardly any journal gets published without at least one article involving the use of CRISPR technologies. CRISPR can be thought of as a set of molecular scissors that can precisely change the genetic code. A quick Google search for CRISPR yields over 13 million hits and almost 300,000 hits when using Google Scholar.

Dr. Marianthi Karageorgi and fellow scientists published an article titled “Genome editing retraces the evolution of toxin resistance in the monarch butterfly” in the journal “Nature” on Oct. 2. The team utilized the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool to give fruit flies the ability to feed on toxic milkweed plants that the famous monarch and a few other species of insect feeds on. They engineered monarch fruit flies!

Milkweeds produce cardiac glycoside toxins, which are deadly to many species because they interfere with sodium/potassium pumps that are critical to nerve and muscle function. However, the monarch and insects like it all possess mutations in the genes that code for their sodium/potassium pumps. These mutations prevent the cardiac glycoside toxin from interfering with their sodium/potassium pumps, making them immune, and they often incorporate the toxin into other cells so that they become toxic to predators. Birds shy away from eating the monarch butterfly for a reason.

A team at Yale led by Dr. Guangchuan Wang and Dr. Ryan D. Chow just recently used a version of CRISPR (CRISPRa) to activate genes that were off. CRISPRa functions to activate genes, turning them back on or turning them up, allowing for overexpression of products. Think of CRISPRa as a tool to flip a switch to turn something on or turn something up. Dr. Wang and Chow’s article was titled “Multiplexed activation of endogenous genes by CRISPRa elicits potent antitumor immunity.” The article was published in the journal, Nature Immunology, only a few days ago.

It shows that CRISPRa can be used to switch many genes back on that cancer cells have turned off in order to evade the immune system. If we switch the genes back on, then they make proteins that our immune system recognizes and attacks. They pretty much took the Harry Potter cloak off of cancer cells, allowing the immune system to go after the cells and kill them.

Articles like this give me great hope for our future.

Dr. Jack Brown is the Paris Junior College Science Division chairman. His science articles is published every Friday.

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