Malaria has afflicted humans for millennia. Even today, the mosquito-borne, parasitic disease claims more than a half-million lives annually . Now, in a study that has raised both hope and concern, researchers have taken aim at this ancient scourge by using one of modern science’s most powerful new technologies—the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool—to turn mosquitoes from dangerous malaria vectors into allies against infection .
The secret behind this new strategy is the “gene drive,” which involves engineering an organism’s genome in a way that intentionally spreads, or drives, a trait through its population much faster than is possible by normal Mendelian inheritance. The concept of gene drive has been around since the late 1960s ; but until the recent arrival of highly precise gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9, the approach was largely theoretical. In the new work, researchers inserted into a precise location in the mosquito chromosome, a recombinant DNA segment designed to block transmission of malaria parasites. Importantly, this segment also contained a gene drive designed to ensure the trait was inherited with extreme efficiency. And efficient it was! When the gene-drive engineered mosquitoes were mated with normal mosquitoes in the lab, they passed on the malaria-blocking trait to 99.5 percent of their offspring (as opposed to 50 percent for Mendelian inheritance).
Caption: Left: High levels of the toxic ataxin-1 protein have destroyed nerve cells in the cerebellum of a mouse, causing a severe disease. Right: Here researchers have genetically blocked the genes that normally produce high levels of ataxin-1. This prevents the disease from developing and keeps the brain healthy. Credit: Harry Orr, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, University of Minnesota
With our aging population, more people are developing neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We currently don’t know how to prevent or cure these conditions, and their increasing prevalence not only represents a tragedy for affected individuals and their families, but also a looming public health and economic crisis.
Even though neurodegenerative diseases have varied roots—and affect distinct cell types in different brain regions—they do share something in common. In most of these disorders, we see some type of toxic protein accumulating in the brain. It’s as if the brain’s garbage disposal system is blocked, letting the waste pile up. In Huntington’s disease, huntingtin is the disease-causing protein. In spinocerebellar ataxia, it’s the ataxins. In Alzheimer’s, it’s beta-amyloid; in Parkinson’s, it’s α-synuclein. When garbage builds up in your kitchen, it’s a bad situation. When it’s in your brain, the consequences are deadly.
Last week, a team of NIH-funded researchers based at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and at the University of Minnesota revealed a clever way to identify genes that normally increase the levels of these rogue disease-causing proteins.