Biotech Breakthroughs – CRISPR and Beyond

Biotechnology continues to advance rapidly, creating innovative medicines, foods and other products.

Scientists recently made a significant breakthrough using CRISPR to edit DNA directly in blood cells and cure an inherited condition, opening up potential new treatments for blood cancers and other illnesses.

Agricultural Biotechnologists

Agricultural biotechnologists use genetics and molecular biology to develop improved crops or organisms for use in food manufacturing. Their goal is to enhance crop production while breeding healthier livestock breeds as well as creating microorganisms to enhance animal health and soil fertility.

Scientists can now detect smaller levels of contaminants than ever before by employing sophisticated biotechnology techniques, providing food companies and government regulators with greater ability to track food safety more effectively.

Biofuels produced from algae, corn stover and sugarcane bagasse are becoming an attractive alternative to petroleum-based fuels, with lower greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner combustion and taking up less land that could otherwise be used for growing food.

Scientists are constantly creating methods of producing foods or ingredients that would otherwise be impossible to grow without advanced biotechnology. For instance, the United States currently imports cocoa and vanilla due to a lack of suitable artificial substitutes; scientists are working on creating crops that can withstand more adverse growing conditions to decrease American dependence on foreign oil imports.

Criminal Investigation and Forensic Medicine

CRISPR technology developed by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna and recognized with the 2012 Nobel Prize is revolutionizing DNA manipulation for researchers worldwide. By pairing Cas9, which can cut DNA, with engineered guide RNA sequences that guide its targeting of specific DNA sequences, they have already made significant advances towards correcting genetic diseases and improving crops.

Plant biologist Yinong Yang used CRISPR to modify mushrooms so they would brown less when exposed to air, yet before these gene-edited products can make their way to stores, the FDA must conduct extensive screening processes in order to ensure safety.

But recent evidence indicates there could be alternative gene-editing systems that rival CRISPR in some aspects. Researchers at MIT discovered a family of enzymes similar to CRISPR which, like CRISPR, cut DNA but can also be guided by RNA sequences to target specific locations – these enzymes are known as OMEGAs — suggesting they might even outshone CRISPR in terms of performance.

Land Mine Detection

Landmines remain deadly long after conflicts have concluded, preventing people from reaching jobs, markets, schools and hospitals – not to mention blocking land used for farming – which hampers economic recovery efforts in war-ravaged nations.

Humans typically utilize detection technologies such as metal detectors to search a desired area for mines; this process is time consuming and dangerous. Other detection technologies include electromagnetic coils, nuclear quadruple resonance devices, metal robotic vehicles, lightbased imaging techniques and lightbased mapping technologies.

Remote sensor technology can be an efficient and safer method for detecting landmines. Infrared (IR) cameras, for example, can spot any changes in heat distribution caused by landmines as they absorb and release heat on a day-night cycle.

Other technologies are being created to detect landmines based on their vibrations. One such device utilizes a laser vibrometer which sends out soundwaves which absorb into mines before rebounding off them to trigger vibration detection by sensors.

DNA Fingerprinting

DNA fingerprinting is an invaluable forensic science technique. Scientists can compare various samples of DNA to see if they match, which helps solve crimes such as rape or murder. DNA fingerprinting uses a special probe which attaches itself to specific minisatellite sequences in human genome, then detects dark bands on a gel electrophoresis slide and identifys its DNA sequence sequence.

CRISPR/Cas9 has quickly become one of the go-to genome editing tools. Unlike ZFNs and TALENs, which require protein engineering for use, CRISPR/Cas9 does not necessitate any protein modification – making targeting genes easier while being more versatile to use.

This research tool allows scientists to manipulate chromatin structures of cells, providing scientists with a powerful way to uncover new biological mechanisms that may otherwise remain hidden behind complex gene regulation and interaction networks. For instance, targeted engineering of chromatin looping may induce or suppress enhancer-promoter interactions and may provide therapeutic approaches to modulate gene expression.

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