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The Promise of CRISPR

Genetic engineering used to be rather clunky, the New Scientist says, but recent advances in genome editing using the CRISPR-Cas9 system are speeding things up. Instead of relying on artificial proteins, the CRISPR-Cas9 system is RNA-based.

"It's exploded, and it's continuing to move very quickly," Charles Gersbach from Duke University tells the New Scientist. "That's testament to how easy it is to use, and how robust the tool is."

Already, the magazine notes, the CRISPR-Cas9 system has been shown to work in a number of model organisms like fruit flies, mice, and zebrafish as well as in crops like rice and wheat.

In addition, the Broad Institute's Feng Zhang notes that the system can be used to modify a number of genes at once, creating the potential to develop cell lines or model organisms that contain, for example, a number of mutations linked to diabetes that could be used to study how a combination of changes affects disease.

Further, the CRISPR-Cas9 system appears to also be able to be used as a transcription factor to induce or turn off gene expression. Such an approach, New Scientist says, could be put to use to treat, for instance, autoimmune disease by influencing how much of an anti-inflammatory protein is made.

Still, it is early days for the technology and it remains unclear how frequently the system targets the wrong spot, as well as how to make sure it gets to the right cells.

"You have to remember we're still in the first year of development for use in human cells," Charles Gersbach from Duke University tells the New Scientist. "It's clear there will be lots of advances in the coming years. We're still working with CRISPR 1.0."