The transformative power of genome editing
Genome editing technologies and expectations from them are causing a lot of stir around the world as well as in India. While everyone is talking about it now, it’s not an overnight phenomenon. The concept has been around for some time, is constantly evolving and still has a long way to go.
The advances in genome editing can be traced back to quiet beginnings in the 1990s, but the current remarkable surge is largely because of the introduction of the CRISPR-CAS9, a genome-editing tool that can used to make changes in sections of the DNA sequence, in 2012.
The simplicity of that platform, compared with the earlier one being used, has led to its rapid adoption and expansion of its applications. Now genome editing can positively impact the world food security and find applications in therapeutics. The ethical issues surrounding human germ line modification and advances in genome editing are something that need to be properly addressed so that the benefits could be optimized for humanity.
In a nutshell, genome editing is the process of modifying the nucleotide sequence (A, T, G and C) of the genome. In the process, an enzyme cuts the DNA at a specific sequence, and when this is repaired by the cell, a change or ‘edit’ is made to the sequence. These edits are made to ensure that intended characteristics can be brought about in the genome.
Genome editing represents the next step of evolution in our ability to analyse and edit the genetics of plants, animal and humans.
Prospects in therapeutics
Apart from genome editing for germ line cells, India needs to develop labs and research centres to carry out research work to correct defects in other cells. Ever since the discovery of specific human disease genes, scientists across the globe have harboured hope that the responsible mutation could be reversed with molecular approaches. Efficient tools such as CRISPR-CAS9 present opportunities to tackle diseases which are beyond the reach of conventional therapy methods. Given the accelerating pace of technological advances and the broad range of basic science and clinical applications, the road ahead looks positive. Despite being in its early stages, the use of CRISPR-CAS9 is very promising considering the proof that the faulty CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator) gene can be corrected in stem cells. This opens many avenues for the precise treatment of cystic fibrosis.
Productivity improvement in crop and livestock
Continuous decrease in availability of land and water for agriculture, uncertain weather conditions and a growing population are signals for the urgent need for an alternative approach in the country. In this scenario, scientists are optimistic about the possibilities of genome editing for enhancing crop productivity to overcome the shortcomings of traditional transgenic methods like irregular breeding cycles, lack of precision in intended trait selection and uncertainty in getting desirable mutations.
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Being a country where most of the population is dependent on animals and animal products, genome editing in India is emerging as a useful tool to increase the produce from the livestock both in terms of quantity and quality. One example is the genetic dehorning of dairy cattle. Physical methods are invasive, painful and expensive. In addition, as the genetic variants responsible for favourable traits (like more muscle mass, tolerance to heat or cold, drought tolerance, or resistance to particular infectious agents) are identified, they could also be introduced into new breeds by genome editing.
Increased population, industrialization and urbanization have been responsible for environmental contamination over the years. A variety of plants, and natural and transgenic microorganisms in soil (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, algae and microarthrops) are highly effective in cleaning up pollutants by removing or immobilizing them. Precise gene editing can become crucial to increasing the overexpression of such traits in organisms to make bioremediation more impactful.
NITI Aayog has been tasked by the Prime Minister’s Office to develop a forward-looking biotechnology regulatory policy and we can hope for a wider role for genome editing to positively transform the Indian landscape as far as biotechnological advances are concerned.
The rapid progress in developing the CRISPR-CAS9 system into a set of tools for cellular and molecular biology research has been remarkable—due mainly to the simplicity, high efficiency and versatility of the system. And the benefits we can extract using these techniques will only be limited by our imagination.
Pranav Anam is co-founder of the Gene Box, a genetics-based healthcare platform.