Even if you have no idea how it works or what the letters stand for, chances are you’ve at least heard of the revolutionary technology dubbed CRISPR.
Cheaper and far more precise than previous gene-editing processes, the CRISPR/Cas9 molecular toolkit continues to see new applications across the scientific world.
Here are a few ways researchers are already using it to make the world a better place;
1. Produce transplant organs
Let’s face it, it’s no secret that there’s a shortage of spare organs for those who desperately need them. Until we can grow new ones from our stem cells, we should consider some alternatives.
Using pigs for their kidneys instead of their bacon might be one solution.
Unfortunately, the risk of catching a common porcine virus is a huge stumbling block, one that CRISPR could be used to solve by taking a molecular chainsaw to the pathogens’ genes.
2. Replace insulin shots for diabetics
For people with Type 2 diabetes, topping up their body with much-needed insulin can be an invasive and uncomfortable process.
Making a skin graft that contains a CRISPR-modified version of a protein that helps insulin regulate blood glucose levels could help make the needle history.
3. Erase killer heart conditions
Editing the genes of humans when they’re just a few cells in size is still a futuristic concept that challenges us ethically as well as medically.
But we might already be on our way, with a recent demonstration of CRISPR being used to edit a gene responsible for a heart condition in a human embryo.
The cells weren’t encouraged to develop further, but it is a proof of concept of what we could one day achieve.
4. Create stunning garden displays
Filling a garden with a rich floral palette might not seem up there with curing heart defects and treating diabetes, but for many people a more beautiful world is still a better one.
Scientists have used CRISPR to snip a gene responsible for the violet colour of the Japanese morning glory flower (Ipomoea nil), turning it pure white.
5. Gently cure a bunch of diseases … in mice
Following concerns that CRISPR might come with a risk of unwanted mutations, researchers looked for ways the technology could be applied to our genes without forcing a brutal cut-and-paste.
A clever modification to the process allowed a team of scientists to cure a number of genetic conditions in mice simply by changing how external epigenetic factors modified the genes.
While the initial concerns are more than likely unfounded, the research has pushed the limits on what CRISPR is capable of doing.
6. Destroy superbugs
Prior to the advent of antibiotics, death from the most trivial infections was a horrid reality. With antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the rise we’re facing a return to these darker times.
One way we might be able to fight back against the drug-resistant superbug is to modify viruses with a payload that forces bacteria’s natural versions of the CRISPR enzymes to go rogue and chew up its own genes.
7. Make tiny tape recorders
On its own, making the world’s smallest chemical recording device might not make the world a better place. But to clean up our environment – or even our own bodies – it helps to have ways to map and record our surroundings on the molecular level.
CRISPR has recently been used to turn bacteria into the world’s smallest spooks, giving them the ability to eavesdrop on their environment and time-stamp any samples they take.
One day they could be used to track anything from the breakdown of medications in our guts to changes in pollutants in our waterways.