Is the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 system already outdated?

28 Sep 2015

Scientists in MIT have claimed to have discovered an even better way to use CRISPR to genetically modify human genes, with Cpf1 the new kid on the block. So long Cas9.

To add a little bit of context, CRISPR is based on a natural system that many bacteria use to defend against viruses, which basically sheds the invading genes.

A few years ago scientists learned to adapt it into two manageable entities: a stretch of two RNA molecules lined up with specific genes and, through Cas9, a cutting and pasting protein that can home in on chosen targets and snip them out.

These can be modified and placed back in, thus allowing for the modification of things like human T-Cells, for example.

US$120m in funding was recently poured into a start-up in the CRISPR/Cas9 area, while even ‘garage scientists’ can now get involved after prices for the tools used in the process tumbled over the summer.

It was an amazing discovery and one that has completely revolutionised how many people around the world go about their work.

Now, though, that could change again.

Improvements galore

Feng Zhang and his MIT colleagues have spent the last couple of years looking at CRISPR/Cas9, and have been seeking ways to improve on it.

They recently published a paper on a new enzyme called Cpf1, with this apparently a vast improvement on Cas9 for two reasons.

It needs just one RNA molecule and it’s far smaller than its predecessor, meaning it can be delivered into cells and tissues far more easily.

John van der Oost, a microbiologist at Wageningen University and a co-author on the paper, said he thinks the whole process still has room to improve even more, with studies in this area really only a couple of years old.

“There are definitely many more defence systems out there, and maybe some of them might even have spectacular applications like with the Cas9 system,” he said.

“We have the feeling it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

All of this is a bit heavy on technicalities so, for brevity, this video should clear up any misunderstanding on how CRISPR has been utilised by scientists.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic