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Genetic Engineering News: Scientists Discover Off-Switch For CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing System

Update Date: Jan 02, 2017 10:30 AM EST
CRISPR Gene Editing System
Gene editing has been widely used in the aim to find cure for some genetic diseases. Now, scientists have found a way to turn off the system. (Photo : William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Over the past years, many scientists have used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system to "copy and paste" genes. Though it has been a major scientific breakthrough in 2016, limiting the effects of genetic engineering has been difficult for scientists, until now. A team of scientists discovered an off-switch for gene editing tool through anti-CRISPR proteins from bacterial viruses.

The use of genetic editing tools has raised concerns among scientists and the public since its effects could not be stopped or limited. Some fear that it could eventually lead to uncontrolled consequences or even be used to produce biological weapons. The new discovery, however, could shed light on blocking unintended outcomes through the use of a set of proteins that could act as a kill switch for the Crispr-Cas9 system.

The study, published in the journal Cell, shows that the scientists have uncovered the key to making their genetically-engineered creations less likely to accidentally destroy the world. They found a way to turn off modifications made with the powerful gene-editing technique.

"Just as CRISPR technology was developed from the natural anti-viral defense systems in bacteria, we can also take advantage of the anti-CRISPR proteins that viruses have sculpted to get around those bacterial defenses," Benjamin Rauch, lead author of the study, said in a press release by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

Anti-CRISPR Proteins

The newly discovered proteins, dubbed as anti-CRISPR proteins, have been the first ones to work against the most commonly used type of CRISPR-Cas9 system in laboratories and gene editing industry. This new discovery will pave way for better ways to make CRISPR applications more precise and stop any potentially harmful uses of the technology.

According to Live Science, the scientists discovered four anti-CRISPR proteins, two of which seem to stop the CRISPR system from affecting human cells, at least in a petri dish. Since scientists could not undo an edit the system has made, the proteins could pull the plug on an edit that's progressing.

The CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing System

The CRISPR-Cas9 system evolved in bacteria as an immune system to protect against viral infections. However, over the past several years, the system has been widely used as a gene editing system, allowing scientists to efficiently modify genetic information and change gene activity in any organism.

Though the system promises to speed efforts in the treatment of genetic disorders, the technology has not yet been proven to be efficient and precise enough. Many scientists worry that the power of this new technology could cause potential harm, either by accident or intentionally.

The new off-switch discovery could help scientists stop a genetic engineering flaw or mistake even if it's still in progress. In this way, potential harm to humankind and the world could be stopped immediately.

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