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Two Pints of Lager and packet of CRISPR By Ellie Judd

Here at Real Science, we are powered by curiosity and we love a pint. The Pint of Science Festival was made for us! Over the past week, we sent some of our intrepid science explorers to investigate some of the fascinating topics that were on offer. We came, we saw, we took notes.

At the ‘two pints of lager and a packet of CRISPR’ event on 21st May, there were two brilliant speakers (Dr Versha Prakash and Prof David Rueda) explaining how the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technique works, and any potential off-target effects of the technique. There is huge potential for treating and curing genetic diseases, for example cystic fibrosis and ALS, with CRISPR. The mechanism, first discovered in bacteria, is a way for bacterial to protect themselves against phages. CRISPR sequences found in DNA then transcribed to RNA, bind Cas9 enzymes in the cell; this complex ‘reads’ the phage DNA and cuts when there is a match – just like a pair of scissors.
To show how this system can be used for genome editing, Prof David Rueda demonstrated by cutting a piece of paper with the word GUESS printed on it and sticking it back together with some extra letters to make the word GUINNESS.
When applied to human cells there are many off-target effects, which we do not yet understand. Current algorithms predict one off-target effect out of dozens that happen in reality: a scary prospect! This demonstrates that it is too early to be using this technique in humans. We see even more off-target effects in distorted DNA – identified using molecular tweezers and a mutant Cas9 protein, which binds but does not cut the DNA.
There is also interest in using the technique to create crops that could be resistant to climate change and crops that are more nutritious – a soya oil said to be more nutritious than olive oil is apparently coming to the market next year.