Editing DNA, the molecule that stores all of the genetic information that makes us who we are, is nothing new. However, a new tool now enables scientists to edit DNA with better precision and efficiency than ever before, and it has some potentially life-changing applications. It has already been used to create monkeys with targeted mutations and even prevent HIV infection in human cells, but it could eventually enable scientists cure any genetic disease.
The ground-breaking new tool is known as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR for short, but it wasn’t actually scientists that invented it.
CRISPR is a naturally–occurring system used by bacteria to protect themselves against viruses. When a bacterium detects the presence of virus DNA, it can copy segments of it as an RNA molecule. The RNA then joins forces with an enzyme called Cas9, and when it encounters a virus DNA with the same sequence, the Cas9 chops it up to disable it. Scientists have been studying this CRISPR/Cas9 system for many years, and have now worked out a way to use for editing the DNA within any cell belonging to any living thing in the world.
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