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CRISPR Cas9 Genome Editing Is a Huge Deal, But It’s Just the Tip of the Iceberg

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The iceberg called genome editing.

CRISPR sequences naturally occur in primordial immune systems and are found in about 40 percent of bacteria and 90 percent of archaea (single-celled microorganisms), and Cas9 is just one of many proteins associated with CRISPR sequences. 

The CRISPR/Cas9 system, then, is just one of many possible new techniques for gene-editing in living cells. And the patent debate could be likened to a time in 1885 when a competitor managed to strip Thomas Edison of a patent on a lightbulb with a paper filament...only by then it didn’t matter because Edison had invented a better light bulb.

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique is a massive discovery—that may already be on its way to being outdated.

In September of last year, Zhang and his team at the Broad Institute published a study in Cell describing an even simpler and more precise system for genome editing using the Cpf1 enzyme instead of Cas9. 

Cpf1 is better than Cas9 for several reasons. Most significantly, Cpf1 cuts DNA differently than Cas9. Cas9 cuts both strands of DNA in the same place, leaving “blunt ends” that often experience mutations when they are reattached. Cpf1 cuts are offset, allowing researchers to integrate a piece of DNA more accurately and easily and lowering the chances of unwanted mutations.

“We see much more to come, even beyond Cpf1 and Cas9, with other enzymes that may be repurposed for further genome editing advances,” says Zhang.

Genome editing will no doubt evolve at a rapid pace. Researchers will continue experimenting with naturally occurring methods, and it’s not crazy to think that one day when we understand the process better, we could even design and synthesize entirely novel artificial methods of genome editing. 

Whatever method we end up using, what we call it, and which company or university owns the patent are small matters compared to the fact that we are entering an era where humans have an unprecedented ability to control our own evolution.

As Juan Enriquez says, we are on our way to becoming Homo Evolutis: a species which can deliberately control our own biology and evolution.

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