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Bioengineering keeps making amazing progress

CRISPR has opened the door to the manipulation of DNA and RNA. Now scientists are using it to create a record of the sequence of genes activation in a cell. Image credit:Santi Bhattarai Kline et al, Recording gene expression order in DNA by CRISPR addition of retron barcodes, Nature

CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats- as become an invaluable tools for bioengineers, allowing them to cut, add, replace any string of DNA (and more recently RNA) to meet specific needs. Basically what they do is to alter a DNA sequence so that it will instruct the cell to manufacture a specific protein, that in turns will result in a change of behaviour/function of the cell.

With this tool it has been possible to engineer bacteria to eat oil spill and solve pollution problems. More recently CRISPR has been used to cure a genetic disease and the promise is to finally solve pathologies related to genetic abnormalities.

One of the big issue facing researchers and bioengineers is to understand the role played by different genes in the manifestation of a disease (an abnormality). This is extremely difficult since in most cases there are several genes involved (over a hundred have been associated to autism syndrome) and it matters the order in which genes are expressed (activated).

Now a paper published on Nature on a research (funded among others by Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative) is reporting that  a joint team of researchers (from Gladstone Institute of Data Science and Biotech, Harvard Medical School Dept. of Genetics, University of Washington -Seattle_ and Duke University) have found a way to use CRISPR to record the order of gene activation in a living cell. Once the CRISPR “tape” has recorded the sequential activation of genes it can be extracted from the cell and analysed giving scientists a throve of information previously unavailable (and basically impossible to harvest).

The system uses CRISPR to create a sort of barcode that is unique to each activated gene and the sequence of barcodes corresponds to the sequence of activated genes. They called the system Retro-Cascorder (to emphasise the role played by CRISPR Cas).

This is expected to create a completely new set of knowledge that could allow the design of a cure (like blocking the expression of a gene in a sequence).

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.