Everything you always wanted to know about gene drives

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMosquito nets are not enough, vaccines are late to come, land reclamation in Africa is a challenge. But there is a new hope for defeating malaria, coming directly from the most advanced CRISPR frontier. The trick is a kind of genetic chain reaction fuelled by genetic elements called “gene drives”. Researchers are experimenting their power with the aim of crashing the number of mosquitoes responsible for Plasmodium transmission, by spreading genes that are bad for Anopheles gambiae. A gene behaving in Mendelian way has a 50% chance of being passed on from parent to offspring, but it can virtually reach 100% with a little help from a drive. Thus a gene designed to damage a harmful species can propagate within a few generations with a domino effect, until the population collapses. One of the founders of this futuristic strategy is an Italian molecular parasitologist: Andrea Crisanti, of the London Imperial College. We asked him to explain times and ways, strengths and risks of this approach. Continue reading

CRISPRing future harvests at DuPont

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CRISPR is set to make its commercial debut in maize fields in 2020. The honor (and burden) of probing the market, as the first product developed with the revolutionary technique for genome editing, is up to a kind of corn called waxy for the appearance of its kernels. Its starch is almost entirely amylopectin and almost zero amylose. Conventional waxy varieties already available to farmers have some yield drag due to the undesirable genetic baggage introduced by breeding. Conversely, DuPont Pioneer researchers created a waxy version of their best corn without yield drag or foreign DNA by editing out a gene for an enzyme that produces amylose. Amylopectin is used for the production of goods such as paper adhesives and food thickeners. What remains after its extraction is a protein flour that can be employed as feed. It may sound like a low-profile debut for the celebrated genome editing technology that is asked to succeed where GMOs have failed: gaining consumer confidence. But this is a deliberate strategy, as explained below by Neal Gutterson, DuPont Pioneer’s vice president of R&D. Continue reading

Engineering vs editing. What difference does it make to people?

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The destiny of new technologies greatly depends on their social acceptance. It makes sense, therefore, to try to understand whether the editing metaphor could make CRISPR appear more reassuring than other approaches to genetic modification. This idea has gained some ground and was discussed by several bioethicists in the American Journal of Bioethics. However, it is still an unproven hypothesis. A contribution to the debate comes from the journal Frontiers in Public Health, with a study suggesting that biotech metaphors have little impact on public perception. Continue reading

CRISPR mosquitoes come to town

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The Italian city of Terni is now a spot on the map of cutting-edge research due to its new genetic-ecology lab,  which is getting involved in the Target Malaria project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For a couple of days, citizens are allowed to visit the facility which is part of the Genomics, Genetics and Biology Innovation Pole. That’s an example of real public engagement: everybody can talk to researchers and watch videos, but also enter the climatic rooms simulating tropical conditions and see the cages for the insects which are the tiny heroes and the target of a daring scientific challenge. The mission here in Terni indeed is to investigate if the idea of controlling genetically malaria, by introducing self-destroying Anopheles gambiae into wild mosquitoes populations, is set to work in real world situations. Continue reading

Nobody’s perfect. Neither CRISPR nor peer-review

nobodyPerfection is not of this world, and no technology is perfect. But tolling the bell for CRISPR because of a single preliminary study last week was premature at best. Many voices are doubting the meaning of the Nature Methods paper reporting “hundreds of unintended mutations” putatively caused by genome editing. Some researchers have already announced that critical analyses and rebuttals are forthcoming. Continue reading

Expect the unexpected. CRISPR week roundup

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CRISPR binge-watchers have eyes wide shut. Medicine historian Nathaniel Comfort demolishes for Nature the long-awaited book by the queen of genome editing Jennifer Doudna “A crack in creation”. CRISPR stocks fall after the publication of a small preliminary study on off-target mutations. New Scientist announces as many as 20 human trials will be under way soon, mostly in China.

Gene therapy meets CRISPR

gene therapyThe aim is engaging: to treat an increasing number of diseases by correcting the underlying genetic defects. And researchers are breathing optimism at last. The San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (SR-Tiget) in Milan has already treated 58 patients (including ADA-SCID, leukodystrophy, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome and beta-thalassemia) and the count is approaching 300 worldwide. Moreover the promise of genome editing is looming on the horizon. We discussed the present and future of the field with the SR-Tiget director Luigi Naldini, who contributed to the latest report on human genome editing published by the US National Academies of Sciences and Medicine. Continue reading