Biodiversity is a wonderful interplay between genetics and evolution, and butterflies are a fascinating example with their variety of patterns and colors. Understanding how the same gene networks engender visual effects so diverse in thousands of Lepidoptera species is a longtime ambition for many entomologists and evolutionary biologists. The good news is that scientists nowadays have a straightforward technique working with organisms that were difficult to manipulate with conventional biotech tools. Obviously, we are talking about CRISPR. Two papers published in PNAS last week describe how genome editing was used to alter the genetic palette of colors in butterflies and how their wings changed as a result. We’ve asked the entomologist Alessio Vovlas, from the Polyxena association, to comment these stunning experiments. Continue reading
Spring in Japan is pink as cherry blossoms, but summer turns violet as the flowers of a climbing plant frequently grown in the gardens of the Rising Sun. It is a kind of morning glory, of the Ipomoea nil species, locally known as Asagao. This plant had its genome sequenced in 2016 and is now inaugurating the CRISPR era in floriculture. Continue reading
It’s mid-August, but CRISPR never goes on vacation. Not to be missed this week is the Science paper by George Church’s team. They have cloned 15 PERV-free piglets, meaning porcine retrovirus sequences have been edited out. The animals can now “serve as a foundation pig strain, which can be further engineered to provide safe and effective organ and tissue resources for xenotransplantation,” researchers write. According to the Harvard geneticist, the first pig-to-human transplants could occur within two years. Another article in the same journal feels the pulse of public perception of human genome editing, concluding that opinions are nuanced and the challenge is to find the best way to engage people in discussions about genome-editing regulation.
“Safe genes” is what it’s called, and it’s a program for the responsible development of gene editing technologies funded with $65 million by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The grant will go to seven teams including top scientists such as CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna and synthetic biologist George Church. Finding reversible ways to control gene editing is a national security issue, in the event CRISPR falls into the wrong hands. But Darpa intends also to foster peaceful applications, by encouraging innovation and mitigating risks which might accidentally arise in civilian labs. Think of new CRISPR variants that can distinguish between highly similar genetic sequences, or molecular mechanisms to finely modulate the technology of gene drives, which is experimented to propagate modifications through entire populations. Continue reading
Berkeley vs. Boston. Jennifer Doudna vs. Feng Zhang. The patent battle on the technique that is revolutionizing life sciences has often been described as a duel between the group that first experimented the CRISPR platform on the genome of bacteria and the group that, a few months later, adapted the system for use in eukaryotic cells. But the patent landscape is more complicated than that, and there are worries that the stunning potential of this genetic modification technology may crumble under a mountain of intellectual property rights claims. The good news is that several patent holders are discussing how to merge their assets into a joint licensing pool, to allow interested researchers to deal with a single subject. But will this strategy be suffice to safeguard the common interest, which is to enable as many groups as possible to work to turn CRISPR promises into reality? Continue reading
The University of Berkeley has opened a glimpse into the way bacteria use CRISPR, the microbial immune system that inspired the invention of the method for genetic modification also known as CRISPR. The paper published in Science by Jennifer Doudna’s team is a fascinating piece of basic research and scientists are hopeful they will be able to turn the discovery into a new biotech tool. Continue reading
A few artists are already interested in using CRISPR to explore the border between biology and art, but scientists have so far been able to develop the artistic potential of genetics more elegantly and surprisingly. In this Nature paper, George Church’s group recalls the beginnings of cinematography by introducing old images of a galloping horse into a dividing bacterial population. Harvard researchers have chosen a historical sequence captured by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1887, using a code based on nucleotide triplets to specify pixels tonalities. The exploit is technically astonishing, and it is not just a divertissement. It represents a proof of concept that one day perhaps we will be able to build cellular recorders, that can collect and store what is going on inside cells. But enthusiasm for futuristic research applications is joined here by an ancient sense of wonder. That galloping horse turns upside down proportion and hierarchy: it is the great in the small, the elegant in the primitive, the mammal in bacteria. Science has become magic. Art indeed.