CRISPR futures. Q&A with Jennifer Doudna

Doudna, Jennifer

Credit: Keegan Houser/UC Berkeley

Interview given to Anna Meldolesi (Corriere della sera, 15 May 2018)

The CRISPR biomedical duel between China and the US has been called “Sputnik 2.0”. Is Europe being left behind?

JD: As with any disruptive technology, there is intense competition to lead. However, unlike the space race, the CRISPR research effort is global and more collaborative. We consistently see key advances in CRISPR technology shared through scientific papers, written and read by research teams around the world. This collective approach has helped to democratize the technology. However, differing regulations across countries may impact how we ultimately translate research into real-world applications that can benefit the most number of people with the most need. Researchers in Europe have made valuable contributions to the development and application of CRISPR and will continue to play a role in establishing global standards. Continue reading

Editing the celiac diet. Is it GM bread?

gluten-free

Wheat contains many genes coding for proteins that are toxic to people with celiac disease (gliadins), but CRISPR could edit them all out. Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (Córdoba, Spain) have managed to knockout up to 35 of these genes, reducing immunoreactivity by up to 85%. The 100% goal now seems to be at hand. But is biotech “gluten-free” bread tasty? And is it going to reach the market? We asked plant scientist Francisco Barro, corresponding author of the paper recently published in Plant Biotechnology Journal. Continue reading

Editing embryos, the British way

embrioni UK.docxThey are the first human embryos edited in Europe and reported in scientific literature. The key difference with experiments already carried out in China and US is that the research published by Nature last week doesn’t have embryonic gene therapy in view. The London Francis Crick’s Institute team, in fact, was not interested in correcting disease-causing mutations but in increasing knowledge on human embryonic development. We asked one of the authors, Alessandro Bertero, to explain goals and results. The Italian researcher was pursuing his Ph.D. at Cambridge when he helped to refine the technique used by Kathy Niakan and colleagues to edit the genome of embryos. He answered our questions via Skype from America, where he continues working on embryonic stem cells as a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University Continue reading

3 questions on CRISPR butterflies

19TB-BUTTERFLIES3-master675Biodiversity 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

An intelligence team for CRISPR warrior proteins

doudna_crispr_wide-cb9478286d39615ed64291ea95d4cfe022596aa2-s900-c85The 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

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