October 20, 2017
A common horror story in science fiction involves genetic engineering. Ambitious scientists go too far and create a monster, or society genetically engineers their children with unforeseen consequences. These scenarios are still a long way off, but CRISPR technology is now being used for gene editing in human embryos, however, the goal is not to improve or change the embryo but to study human development in the womb.
CRISPR is an enormous breakthrough in genetic sciences and opens the door to unbelievable possibilities. In effect, geneticists are able to use CRISPR to alter or add genes to the DNA of a developing embryo of any species, but the key is that we can ensure that this gene is passed on to future generations.
For example, CRISPR was a proposed solution to eliminating the Zika Virus by creating a population of mosquitos that are unable to carry the disease. Once introduced to the existing population of Zika-bearing mosquitos, future generations would be born as incompatible hosts. Over time, this would eliminate the disease entirely.
From Embryo to Blastocyst
In early human development, a human embryo transitions over the course of five days into a blastocyst and attaches itself in the mother’s uterus. Going from a single to a multi-celled organism, that blastocyst is now comprised of three types of cells. Some are stem cells that will eventually develop into the fetus, another type will develop into the placenta, while a third will grow into the yolk sac.
OCT4 Protein and Human Embryos
In both human and mice embryos there is a protein known as OCT4, which appears to trigger the development of the stem cells. In mice, those cells that lack this protein develop into mostly placenta cells, and a mouse fetus never forms from the embryo. In humans, however, Kathy Niakin, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, suspects that the OCT4 protein has multiple purposes in human development not found in mice.
Testing 37 single-cell human embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization and donated by the couples, Niakin used CRISPR to block the gene that is responsible for creating OCT4. The result was that these embryos developed neither stem cells, placenta cells, nor yolk sac cells. This implies that the OCT4 protein is involved with all of these key early development cell types rather than just the development of stem cells.
The embyros studied in Niakin’s experiments grow for a period of seven days, from fertilized egg to blastocyst, and are then destroyed.
Another Use for CRISPR
Though many would assume that CRISPR’s only value would be for manipulating embryos for some sort of benefit to the population at large. Niakin’s work proves the CRISPR is a more versatile technique. If done correctly, it could be a productive avenue of research. Niakin is planning on testing more genes and conducting more research into early embryonic development. OCT4 is only the start, and this research has the potential of uncovering a greater understanding of human development in its most nascent stages.
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