Radical Eradication: A (Population) Crash Course in Genetic Engineering

Malaria is a life-threatening blood disease that plagues nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. The disease in manifested by parasites of the Plasmodium genus and transmitted to humans through the bite of female Anopheles mosquitoes, which serve as the primary disease vectors. Roughly 200 million people per year are infected with malaria, and approximately 400,000 deaths are reported annually, with children under the age of five comprising the majority of victims.

Africa disproportionately bears the global brunt of this devastating illness, with approximately 92% of all reported cases, as well as 93% of all reported deaths, originating from the continent. This can be partially attributed to the fact that the conditions for transmission are essentially ideal there: the principal vector species Anopheles gambiae are abundant in this region, and not only do they prefer to source their blood from humans over animals, but the mosquitoes also tend to have a longer lifespan, which allows the most common and deadly malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, to complete its life cycle, which contributes to higher disease transmission efficacy.

Though malaria is a preventable disease, often the areas affected most lack access or resources, or are politically unstable, all factors that can contribute to the absence of consistent, functional malaria control programs. Though malaria is also a curable disease, it has long been debated whether eradication was even within the realm of possibility. There are four species of Plasmodium parasites responsible for the pathogenesis of malaria and each exhibit different forms of drug resistance and each responds differently to different medications. This alone makes the prospect of developing a single overarching vaccine for all strains of malaria an improbable achievement and the idea of eradication practically impossible.

A CRISP[E]R APPROACH

In a study recently published in Nature Biotechnology, a team of scientists were able to effectively implement a new, though indubitably controversial, type of genetic modification. The team was able to weaponize mosquitoes to take out…other mosquitoes! They were able to engineer male mosquitoes to rapidly pass down a fatal mutation through generations of their own species, effectively sterilizing all female offspring, eliminating the possibility of successful reproduction and resulting in a population crash. Continue reading “Radical Eradication: A (Population) Crash Course in Genetic Engineering”

A Crash Course in CRISPR

CRISPR is a hot topic right now, and rightly so—it is revolutionizing research that relies on editing genes. But what exactly is CRISPR? How does it work? Why is everyone so interested in using it? Today’s blog is a beginner’s guide on how CRISPR works with an overview of some new applications of this technology for those familiar with CRISPR.

Introduction to CRISPR/Cas9

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Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) were discovered in 1987, but it took 30 years before scientists identified their function. CRISPRs are a special kind of repeating DNA sequence that bacteria have as part of their “immune” system against invading nucleic acids from viruses and other bacteria. Over time, the genetic material from these invaders can be incorporated into the bacterial genome as a CRISPR and used to target specific sequences found in foreign genomes.

CRISPRs are part of a system within a bacterium that requires a nuclease (e.g. Cas9), a single guide RNA (sgRNA) and a tracrRNA. The tracrRNA recruits Cas9, while sgRNA binds to Cas9 and guides it to the corresponding DNA sequence of the invading genome. Cas9 then cuts the DNA, creating a double-stranded break that disables its function. Bacteria use a Protospacer Adjacent Motif, or PAM, sequence near the target sequence to distinguish between self and non-self and protect their own DNA.

While this system is an effective method of protection for bacteria, CRISPR/Cas9 has been manipulated in order to perform gene editing in a lab (click here for a video about CRISPR). First, the tracrRNA and sgRNA are combined into a single molecule. Then the sequence of the guide portion of this RNA is changed to match the target sequence. Using this engineered sgRNA along with Cas9 will result in a double-stranded break (DSB) in the target DNA sequence, provided the target sequence is adjacent to a compatible PAM sequence. Continue reading “A Crash Course in CRISPR”