Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Advanced Search

Search for

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook



MIT CRISPR team turn to RNA

06 June 2016

By Ayala Ochert and Amina Yonis

Appeared in BioNews 854

The team that developed the CRISPR/Cas9 DNA-editing technique have now developed a new system that could allow RNA editing.

An RNA-editing system is potentially more versatile than its DNA counterpart when developing treatments for genetic diseases, cancer and infectious diseases. The system could also improve scientific understanding of how RNA works in cells.

The CRISPR/Cas9 DNA-editing system is based on a natural defence mechanism that evolved in bacteria to protect against viruses. Researchers led by Dr Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard describe how they found an analogous enzyme, called C2c2, in the bacterium Leptotrichia shahii, which naturally targets RNA as part of that bacterium's immune system.

'Nature has already invented all these really interesting mechanisms. We're just trying to play with that and learn how they work, then turn them into tools that will be useful to us,' said Dr Zhang.

In living cells, DNA gets transcribed into RNA, which is then translated into proteins by cell structures called ribosomes. But recent research suggests that RNA may play a more important role than simply carrying out the instructions contained in the cell's DNA, and abnormal levels of certain RNAs have been observed in heart disease and some cancers.

Reporting the team's findings in Science, Dr Zhang described how they inserted C2c2 into another species of bacteria, where it was able to alter levels of single-stranded RNA. They were able to reduce the expression of the gene encoded by the RNA, which suggests that it may eventually be possible to turn down levels of gene expression rather than simply silencing genes.

'The problem with DNA editing is that it's permanent. DNA repair mechanisms are so strong that it may be more effective to act on the RNA rather that cutting the DNA,' said Dr Gene Yeo of the Institute of Genomic Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. 

Last year, their rival team at the University of California, Berkeley – led by Professor Jennifer Doudna – used a different approach to modify the CRISPR/Cas9 system to edit RNA rather than DNA. The two teams are currently in a patent dispute over the CRISPR technology itself (see BioNews 835).

The C2c2 system has not yet been tested in mammalian cells, but Professor Zhang says he is confident that this will be possible, and he believes that it is likely to be more effective than Professor Doudna's system because it is a based on a natural RNA-targeting system rather than an engineered one.

'RNA is the blueprint through which genes regulate cellular processes,' Dr Oliver Rackham of the University of Western Australia, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist. 'The exciting thing about this study is that it now opens up the RNA world to the ease of experimental design afforded by CRISPR.'

Eurekalert (press release) | 02 June 2016
New Scientist | 02 June 2016
Science | 02 June 2016
MIT News (Broad Institute press release) | 02 June 2016
The Scientist | 02 June 2016
Scientific American | 02 June 2016


14 August 2017 - by Emma Lamb and Annabel Slater 
Scientists have repurposed CRISPR to target the repetitive RNA sequences responsible for several genetic diseases...
24 April 2017 - by Jennifer Willows and Annabel Slater 
A new highly sensitive diagnostic system for diseases has been adapted from CRISPR...
03 October 2016 - by Helen Robertson 
Two teams of researchers have used CRISPR genome editing technology to identify 'non-coding' regions of the genome for the first time...
12 September 2016 - by Dr Özge Özkaya 
Scientists from China have managed to shrink the size of tumours in mice using CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing technology...
27 June 2016 - by Rachel Reeves 
The first in-human use of the genome-editing technology CRISPR has been approved by a US federal safety board...

16 May 2016 - by Sarah Gregory 
Researchers have developed a quick and cheap 'paper-based' test that uses CRISPR to detect the Zika virus...
25 April 2016 - by Dr Özge Özkaya 
Scientists have fine tuned the genome-editing tool CRISPR so that it can now edit a single 'letter' of DNA...
11 April 2016 - by James Brooks 
Scientists testing whether the CRISPR genome-editing technique could effectively kill HIV in infected cells have found that, while the approach works in most cases, it can also cement the virus's presence...
07 March 2016 - by Kirsty Oswald 
Researchers have found that mimiviruses, a class of giant viruses, have an immune system reminiscent of the CRISPR system used by bacteria to evade infection...

Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust


Public Conference
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation