Significant progress has been made in bio-engineering with the capability offered by CRISP/CasX to modify the genome. However, the genome has an impact on who we are (and on some 7,000 genetic disorders) only as far as genes are activated. The long DNA sequence contains some (estimated) 20,000 to 25,000 genes that carry the instructions to build specific proteins. These genes are usually dormant and get activated when need arises.
Hence, bio engineers have started to look into gene activation. If a gene has gone wrong rather than fixing it by changing (or deleting) it why not look into the possibility to make sure that it never gets activated? Similarly, if a gene is not activated and therefore it does not lead to the production of a specific protein, could we step in an activate it?
This gene activation often is the result of the ambient we live in, of what we eat, of the type of life we live… All this goes under the name “epigenetics”, the activation/regulation of genes resulting from external factors, and epigenetics may be the cause of diseases.
Researchers are exploring the possibility of controlling the gene activation (or blocking them) as a way to fine tune the DNA. The ongoing effort is well described in a recent article on Wired. The approach is interesting since it does not involve any change in the DNA (hence avoiding ethical issues), yet achieving (in many situations) the same result.
A good example of the potential of this approach is given in an article on Science Advances reporting the results of fine tuning to relieve anxiety in adults that have made eccessive use of alcohol in their youth. Excessive use of alcohol (too many binges) in youth induce an epigenetic re-programming of some genes that later in life will lead to anxiety in adult. Epigenomic editing can ameliorate the situation.
It is just an example, but it is significant in showing that we can have an effective approach to regulate epigenetic traits, even fixing undesired ones that originated way in the past, as shown in the example.