This Friday and Saturday the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is hosting their third peer-to-peer workshop on CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, called Genome Engineering 3.0
Genome Engineering 3.0
More and more it’s collaboration that makes the world of science and technology go round and round, faster and faster. For example, if you’re a computer programmer working on a difficult logic problem, you don’t think twice about opening up a GitHub repository to share your code with others to get feedback or help others with their software development roadblocks. In just about any field you can think of, from 3D printing, to technical rock-climbing, to building your own electric car, we guarantee you there is a dedicated YouTube channel, a user forum, a webinar or a workshop series just for you. And in the very rare case you are working on something that no one else is doing, you can use these collaborative tools to create your own dedicated user groups, workshops and tutorials.
So, given our highly collaborative, inventive and curious approach to problem-solving, it’s not surprising that the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard* will be hosting a workshop — called Genome Engineering 3.0 — this coming Friday and Saturday on how to edit genes in DNA. But wait there’s more. You can also learn about using shared gene repository libraries and other open source resources to collaborate with other researchers and speed up your genetic experiments. Just like that!
* Editor’s Note:We’ve written about amazing research at the Broad Institute in an earlier article.
What? You Can Learn Gene Splicing Technology in Two Days?
If you haven’t been following the rapid advances in genomic engineering in the last couple years, you may be surprised to learn about the revolution underway. This amazing trail of discovery started with an insightful observation about genetic word patterns in the DNA of bacteria. These short genetic sequences, which we’re calling words to keep things simple, help protect the bacteria from attack by viruses and phages.
The next discovery is that you can actually cut these genome sequences at a specific location, or word. In the short-term, the cut will disable the genetic material, but a living cell will try to repair itself, sometimes leading to unpredictable genetic mutations. (These mutations are of great interest to genetic researchers in and of themselves.) Finally, scientists realized they could introduce new genetic sequences into a living cell and, using a helper template gene, insert the replacement sequence into the cut. In summary, you can think of this gene splicing technology in terms of a word processor. When you have a misspelled word or a sentence you want to change, you can use cut / copy / paste to remove or replace specific genes.
To learn more about this technology we turn to the Doudna Laboratory at Berkeley, one of the leading research centers investigating molecular mechanisms of RNA-mediated gene regulation. In the video below, the lead researcher Jennifer Doudna, Professor of the Departments of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of California, gives us an in-depth overview of what we informally called the cut / copy / paste technique, known officially as CRISPR-Cas9 technology. (The term CRISPR refers to the naturally occurring individual repeated genetic sequences found in bacteria, which we called words in our very simple cut / copy / paste explanation above.)
CRISPR-Cas9 Technology: Exciting Discovery or Genetic Time Bomb?
On the one hand, it’s incredibly exciting that this new technology seems to be spreading like wildfire across bio-research laboratories, thanks to collaborative events like the Genome Engineering 3.0 workshop taking place this week in Boston. On the other hand, there are concerns that this technology could be outpacing our ability to understand the potential consequences or establish ethical guidelines, not only in this country, but worldwide.
Concerns about potential mis-use of the technology were raised when genetic laboratory researchers at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou China attempted to modify the DNA in human blood to cure a genetic blood disease known as Beta thalassemia, a hereditary disease affecting hemoglobin. The Journal Nature indicated they would not publish this information, due to safety concerns. And the American National Institute of Health (NIH) have announced they will not fund initiatives that directly edit human embryos.
Still, international guidelines and regulations have not caught up to the rapid advances in technology. Scientists like MIT Prof. Feng Zhang have spoken at the Congressional Biomedical Research Conference briefings in Washington about these issues. And at the elite Davos Conference in Switzerland, Nobel Laureate Craig Mello, winner of the the 2006 Nobel Prize for the discovery of RNA interference, is joined by Prof. Jennifer Doudna in a discussion led by NPR science correspondent Joe Palca on the the scientific breakthroughs and ethical concerns of genomic engineering (see video above). Genetic engineering offers much promise, but the risks of unintended consequences may be equally great. We’re curious what you think.
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