Belfast Telegraph

Gene editing tool unveiled by scientists

A powerful new editing tool that allows unprecedented control over the way genes function has been unveiled by scientists.

Rather than acting on DNA, the new CRISPR system targets RNA, the "messenger" molecule that transfers genetic code instructions.

Manipulating RNA could allow scientists to fine tune gene activity and protein production, turning it up or down, or switching it off altogether, without altering the genetic code itself.

In future it could provide a huge boost to research into the causes and treatment of disease, as well as expanding basic understanding of biological pathways.

Currently scientists commonly "knock out" genes by interfering with RNA to silence them.

RNA editing would make this process much more accurate and, crucially, adjustable.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system that allows scientists to "cut and paste" DNA has already started a revolution in genetic research.

The RNA version of CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is based on an enzyme called C2c2 that helps bacteria protect themselves against viruses.

A study published in the journal Science shows how C2c2 can be programmed to target and slice away specific particular chemical sequences of RNA.

Lead researcher Dr Feng Zhang, from the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, said: "C2c2 opens the door to an entirely new frontier of powerful CRISPR tools.

"There are an immense number of possibilities for C2c2 and we are excited to develop it into a platform for life science research and medicine."

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a close cousin of DNA and both molecules are made of chains of nucleotide chemical components assembled in a sequence.

In cells, RNA acts as a template that picks up the genetic code "software" from DNA and transfers it to protein-making machinery.

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