Zhang on tomorrow’s life sciences

830X320-fengzhangThe genome-editing pioneer ponders the future of life sciences in MIT Technology Review. Curiosity-driven research has unexpectedly led to transformative technologies such as CRISPR, writes Feng Zhang. CRISPR is also reciprocating, by broadening our ability to study the breadth of natural diversity. What an exciting time we live in.

 

Two big cheers for base editing

MUTATION

The rising star of base editing shadowed classic genome editing last week. I’m sure you heard about the ground-breaking papers respectively published by David Liu and Feng Zhang in Nature and Science. CRISPR enthusiasts have probably already enjoyed the piece by Jon Cohen on the new approach, i.e., the rearrangement of atoms in individual DNA letters to switch their identity without even cutting the DNA strands. But let’s take a look also at The Scientist, which runs two must-read articles about the details of the experiments. The first take-home message is the latest achievements are exciting, but base editors are not better than CRISPR, they’re just different. The second one, there is still room for improvement with base editing, and the best is yet to come.

Adding the RNA string to the CRISPR bow

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So far we have learned that CRISPR may turn a faulty gene off by cutting and mutating its sequence. But what if we want to proceed more cautiously and avoid permanent changes to the genome? We could leave the target gene intact but ineffective, by intercepting and destroying the RNA messages with which it gives the wrong orders to the diseased cells. In this way it would be easier to go back if necessary. The good news is that CRISPR is a jack-of-all-trades, well-suited for the task, and the new approach (call it RNA targeting with CRISPR) is going to help to study human biology and diseases. One of the technique pioneer, Feng Zhang, has demonstrated in Nature last week that it can efficiently target RNA in mammalian cells (and also plants), equalizing and even surpassing the performance of the current tool of choice for RNA knockdown (RNA interference). In short, besides advancing its career as DNA editor, CRISPR has also found a second job in the RNA business. Continue reading

The CRISPR diagnostics era is here

ZikaTest_Paper-based-results-002-1024x576Elementary dear Watson, we should have expected that. The CRISPR wave is hitting diagnostics, with a new high sensitivity detection platform named after Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular detective. The acronym SHERLOCK stands for “Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing”. While the technique is used in thousands of labs to turn genes on and off, CRISPR embarks also on epidemiology and learns how to identify nucleic acids from viral and bacterial pathogens to diagnose infections. The paper published in Science by James Collins, Feng Zhang and colleagues heralds a new generation of low cost diagnostic tests with single-base specificity, easy to use even when oubreaks occur in remote areas. Continue reading