For all the things we have and have not done in space, a few will be making rounds in our mind. Sending the weird stuff off on our satellites or flying the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, we have our complete list of exciting things done in Space.
But here is yet another thrilling experience: Gene-editing in Space using CRISPR gene editing tool.
Researchers aboard ISS have undertaken such strenuous task in space on yeast to understand how radiation affects Astronauts in space and how can it be seemingly mitigated to help the ones away from their home planet.
What is gene-editing and the infamous tool used to accomplish the task?
Genome editing is a technique used to alter the DNA of any being that can offer a set of chromosomes to be tweaked including plants, bacteria, animals and even food.
The main motive of editing in DNA results in changes in even the physical traits such as iris color or disease risk.
First such technology was established in late 1900s and CRISPR got invented in 2009 and since then, has been used extensively because it is simpler, faster, cheaper and more accurate than any other editors.
CRISPRs (clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) are actually specific stretches of DNA.
Genes in DNA code for a specific protein. The protein Cas9 coding for an enzyme, acts like a pair of molecular scissors that is capable of cutting strands of DNA to perform editing.
This mechanism has been simulated after learning from bacteria and archaea those chop up and destroy the DNA of a foreign invader to survive.
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went “for the development of a method for genome editing”, which is totally being loved by the entire world, for who does not want a world full of things as desired.
For an in-built safety assurance, Cas9 doesn’t just cut anywhere in a genome. Short specific DNA sequences known as PAMs (protospacer adjacent motifs) serve as tags and sit adjacent to the target DNA sequence. No PAM, no cut.
“Operationally, you design a stretch of 20 [nucleotide] base pairs that match a gene that you want to edit. Then the RNA plus the protein [Cas9] will cut — like a pair of scissors — the DNA at that site, and ideally nowhere else,” explains a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.
Gene-editing popular applications:
Human health: This technology can serve the best in correcting genetic defects.
An assistant professor of biology, neuroscience and physiology at New York University told: “I think the public perception of CRISPR is very focused on the idea of using gene editing clinically to cure disease.”
Up-building Food Security:
Food and agricultural industries can offer more as a playfield to engineer probiotic cultures and vaccinate industrial cultures/inoculums against viruses.
Genes of a crop are altered or modified to improve yield, drought or pest tolerance and increase nutritional properties such as GM cotton, Bt Brinjal etc.
Selector of Inheritance: Gene drives can be created, to select a set of characteristics only to be transferred from parent to next progeny. E.g., Designer babies.
It can even help in preventing the inheritance of a disease trait or blood-related disorders such as hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, and Beta Thalassemia.
Or perhaps to eradicate human problems. Genetic alteration, once introduced, may over the course of generations, spread through entire populations and increase the chances of a particular trait passing on from parent to offspring.
For example: sterility introduced in Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, that causes Malaria.
Gene-editing in India: a taboo or a blessing?
Gene-editing applications seem to have opened new avenues to economic prosperity but it has certain ethical concerns.
Bioethicists fear that this technology may just become another tool for selling commodities or maybe misused by governments and the private sector.
The scope of this tech is still limited in India, confined to the very doors of research labs. Not even, all genetically modified crops can be released in India for cultivation without appropriate approval from GEAC (under the MOEFCC).
“CRISPR technology is erasing barriers to genome editing and could revolutionize plant breeding.”
Since these crops are created with their DNA tweaked, they can exhibit certain additional changes which can turn unwanted for people and society in general.
“Because there are limits to our knowledge of human genetics, gene-environment interactions, and the pathways of disease (including the interplay between one disease and other conditions or diseases in the same patient).”
India is yet to release a comprehensive gene editing policy. India can tailor this risky-yet-helpful tool to its own requirements and can look forward to provision of affordable healthcare to its people.
Environmental concern and the technology scope:
Everything comes with pros and cons. Similarly, Genome editing has its own set of challenges yet to be addressed fully. But if exploited can help save the planet in the long run.
With increasing Climate change and want of greater resilience or sustainability, from droughts, inundation, increased salinity, water scarcity or increased temperatures, such techniques can open big ways.
To feed our Net-zero targets, countries can even look to this sort of editing to produce low-emission varieties of organisms. For instance, livestock is responsible for most of the Methane emissions worldwide.
To overcome such a loss to the planet, the varieties of grass easier for cows to digest, can be designed, for reducing emissions generated by digestion of such animals and simultaneously boosting milk production.
In the UN decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-30, restoring soil health and productivity shall be our top-most concern. For this, the unbated use of nitrogen-based fertilizers (NPK) shall stop.
Genetically enhancing the fixation or intake of required nutrients by the microbes can be dealt with using editing.
Such Environmental bioengineering can even be used to heal the ailing bioindicators like Coral that are being lost due to bleaching.
Australian scientists (The great Barrier reef in Australia already under threat) have proposed using CRISPR to play with the genome of local varieties of these symbiotic algae to ramp-up its resistance to higher temperatures.
Thus, when difficulties surround Humans, we tend to become very demanding and are looking for probable options to survive. Technology can rescue us from our own deeds as we reap what we have sown for our own benefits put ahead.
How the experiment in Space is going to help?
CRISPR tool was used to inflict the yeast in Space with a particular type of cut called a double-strand break, an injury much similarly given by the cosmic rays, and can be particularly harmful.
The change for healing the damage could be visible because of the red-coloured stain given by the editing sequence within next six days of the experiment.
The editing worked providing the first steps for developing a way to repair the ‘injured’ DNA of astronauts while in space as it becomes difficult to keep them healthy and safe while away from Earth.
“It’s not just that the team successfully deployed novel technologies like CRISPR genome editing, PCR, and nanopore sequencing in an extreme environment, but also that we were able to integrate them into a functionally complete biotechnology workflow applicable to the study of DNA repair and other fundamental cellular processes in microgravity.”
“These developments fill this team with hope in humanity’s renewed quest to explore and inhabit the vast expanse of space”, tells the senior author of the study.
Insights gained from this experiment can help researchers know how one can safely navigate future space-based activity.
Accordingly, the Life support systems or required protective gear can be made to shield the human body from long-term radiation exposure and consequent genetic damage.
Thus, this cutting-edge cross-terrestrial genomics can explore ways to help Humankind in this planet and beyond.