Mammoth undertaking: CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing goes beyond medicine

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Pleistocene model: CRISPR/Cas9 key to mammoth de-extinction efforts
Pleistocene model: CRISPR/Cas9 key to mammoth de-extinction efforts

Related tags Gene editing Dna Gene Cell

Big Pharma is not the only slow moving behemoth involved in the CRISPR/Cas9 revolution with a US team citing the gene editing tech as key to its efforts to resurrect the woolly mammoth.

CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing​ has been around for a while – precisely how long is currently the subject of a legal battle​ – but the past 12 months has seen a surge of interest in the tech with AstraZeneca​ and Novartis​ each announcing investments.

Services companies like Horizon Discovery​, tech companies like Thermo Fisher​ and various academics​ have also been using CRISPR/Cas9 to develop everything from new preclinical disease models to cell lines used for biopharmaceutical production.

The gene editing technology – which allows researchers to insert or remove genes from genomes at will – has also prompted ethical questions​, including whether it is appropriate to use CRISP/Cas9 to modify human DNA​.

Elephant in the room

The ‘we can, but should we?’ debate around CRISPR/Cas9 echoes the central theme of the movie Jurassic park in which sceptic Jeff Goldblum questions the wisdom of using DNA technology to recreate long extinct creatures for a dinosaur theme park.

Things do not end well at the park, to put it mildly.

However, the existence of numerous sequels suggest that, despite all the velociraptor-related mayhem, some characters never lose their enthusiasm for DNA-based de-extinction research.

In the real world, enthusiasm for combined de-extinction and DNA tinkering also persists with George Church, a professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, being one of the highest profile examples.

Church’s team has been trying to bring back the woolly mammoth. At least, that was what reported in the mainstream press​.

What they have actually done​ is to use CRISPR/Cas9 to insert sections of synthesised mammoth genes into the DNA of an elephant cell according to Church, who told the breakthrough followed years of work using the gene editing technology.

We were involved in the first set of publications and patents submitted December 2012.  In August 2013 we invented various ways to improve the specificity of the CRISPR system​.”

Medical gene editing

He also cited a paper published in Nature Medicine in 2014​ as evidence of his team’s involvement in CRISPR and experience of it in more commonplace medical research.

As yet the mammoth DNA research has not been published, although Church plans to submit a paper detailing the experiment for peer review in future.

Church also plans to employ CRISPR/Cas9 editing in human medical research through his company EditasMedicine, which licensed the technology.

Source: Nature Medicine 20: 616-23. 

“Modeling the mitochondrial cardiomyopathy of Barth syndrome with induced pluripotent stem cell and heart-on-chip technologies.”

Wang et al.  (2014) 


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