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Genome Editing Could Lead To Biotech, Pharmaceutical Breakthroughs

July 16, 2011

Editing the genome and rewriting the basic code of life might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but research published recently in the journal Science describes how a team of experts from the US and Korea were able to do just that.

In the paper, Harvard Medical School professor George Church, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Joe Jacobson, and their colleagues describe how they successfully altered the genome of a bacterium–a discovery which, according to William Weir of The Hartford Courant, “could lead to advances in manipulating the human genome and cures for such genetic diseases as hemophilia and sickle cell.”

In a July 14 Harvard Medical School press release, the genome-scale editing tools developed by the researchers is described as “as fast and easy as word processing” and has successfully “rewritten the genome of living cells using the genetic equivalent of search and replace–and combined those rewrites in novel cell strains, strikingly different from their forebears.”

The findings, which were published Friday in the journal Science, state that there are three goals behind the editing of the genome: increasing a cell’s functionality through the addition of amino acids, adding “safeguards that prevent cross-contamination between modified organisms and the wild,” and increasing a cell’s resistance to viruses by “rewriting code” that have been “hijacked” by said viruses.

In their paper, Church, Jacobson, and their colleagues describe how they replaced DNA combinations known as codons, which are chains consisting of three adjacent nucleotides, in 32 different strains of the E. coli bacteria. Next, according to the press release, they “coaxed those partially-edited strains along an evolutionary path toward a single cell line in which all 314 instances of the codon had been replaced.”

According to Weir, these findings could prevent disasters such as the 2009 viral contamination of Genzyme, a Massachusetts-based biotech firm that was forced to close for three months and was hit by nearly a billion dollars in damages as a result.

However, he adds that that only scratches the surface of this discovery’s potential.

“As for practical applications, the researchers say the discovery could serve as a safeguard for biotech and pharmaceutical industries that cultivate bacteria,” the Hartford Courant reporter wrote. “By rewriting the genetic code, bacteria could be made resistant to multiple viruses. The method could also be used to prevent cross-contamination between wild organisms and genetically modified ones.”

The research, which took seven years to complete, was funded by US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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