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Can CRISPR Technology Help Us Meet the Goals of "One Health"?

January 9, 2017
The concept of “One Health” recognizes that the health of people, animals, and the environment are linked. Human population expansion and increased global migration have led to significant land-use changes and urbanization, all of which have an impact on the environment and increase the risk of disease transmission between animals and people.

Although increased specialization within scientific disciplines and professions has greatly improved the health and well-being of people and animals, it has also led to silos that impede interdisciplinary communication.

Tackling problems at the core of "One Health" requires equal amounts of “cross-silo” and “within silo” cooperation and collaboration. To address this issue, many leaders are encouraging all levels of government – local, state, and national – to develop efforts that facilitate such interdisciplinary communication.

Vox recently published an article on CRISPR/Cas9 technology which "harnesses the immune system of bacteria to snip individual genes, either knocking them out or even inserting new ones in their place." The article provides many examples of how this technology can help improve the agriculture, energy, and health sectors. While it doesn't specifically call out "One Health," this piece illustrates how the CRISPR technology could be utilized to help us meet the goals of the Initiative. It's a technology that can cross over several different sectors. A blurb of the article can be found here:

What’s impressive about CRISPR is how it’s transforming the work of so many scientists in so many different fields. Much of the important work is still in the proof-of-concept stage — for example, proving that you can use CRISPR to control transcription (making an RNA copy of a gene sequence), edit the epigenome, or image the genome in living cells. But as the details get worked out, scientists say they can imagine CRISPR becoming an incredibly powerful tool.
“We are getting to a point where we can investigate different combinations of genes, controlling when, where, and how much they are expressed, and investigate the roles of individual bases of DNA,” says Nicola Patron, a molecular and synthetic biologist at the Earlham Institute in the UK. “Understanding what DNA sequences do is what enables us to solve problems in every field of biology from curing human diseases, to growing enough healthy food, to discovering and making new medicines, to understanding why some species are going extinct.”

...Designer babies, in other words, are, for now, mainly a sideshow. But we asked Patron and a variety of other scientists what they think are realistically the most exciting ways that scientists might one day change the world using CRISPR. Here are some ideas they put forward.

1) Figure out what different genes actually do
It sounds strange, but even though scientists have sequenced the entire genomes of organisms like mice, corn, and even humans, we still have a lot to learn about what those genes actually do — and which genes are responsible for certain traits or diseases and so on. Piecing this together is an enormously difficult task.

CRISPR could, potentially, change that. By knocking out certain genes and then looking at what effects that has, the technology has the potential to help scientists vastly improve their understanding of different genomes. “That’s one of the most exciting uses,” says Jennifer Doudna, one of the early CRISPR pioneers at the University of California Berkeley. “It gives us the potential to uncover what genome sequences are actually telling us about the behavior of different organisms.”...


2) Engineer plants to improve food security
Over the next 30 years, we’re going to have to find ways feed another two billion people. That means we’re going to have to grow a lot more food — and fast. One way we might be able to do this is to engineer crops to be more resilient to things like weeds, pests, and drought, and to grow faster.

Dan Voytas, a plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota, runs a lab that’s developing methods to use CRISPR for targeted genome modification of plants. Right now, he says he’s working on herbicide-tolerant varieties of cassava for smallholder farmers in Africa. (Traditional GMOs are typically created by transplanting genes from other organisms into crops using a slower, less efficient technique. With CRISPR, you are editing crop genomes with more precision.)

Voytas is also interested in understanding how CRISPR might help improve the photosynthetic efficiency of rice. Plants like rice, potatoes, and cassava — staple foods in much of the developing world — have slower photosynthesis rates in hot environments. If scientists like Voytas can figure out how to get rice to do photosynthesis faster, crop yield could increase dramatically.

3) Identify potential Alzheimer’s treatments
Martin Kampmann is a cell biologist at the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California San Francisco. Along with his colleagues, he has helped develop a CRISPR-based platform to identify the genes controlling processes that drive neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's...

4) Develop new cancer treatments
Scientists have already been exploring how CRISPR might be used to treat certain types of cancer for a few years. A research team at the University of Pennsylvania recently got approval for a small clinical trial in 2017: They will take out some immune cells from 18 patients and use CRISPR to modify the cells to make them more effective at targeting and destroying cancer cells. They will then transplant these edited cells back into the patients and see if it helps with treatment...


5) Reduce our reliance on petrochemicals
Currently, the world relies on the hydrocarbon molecules found in fossil fuels to create materials like plastics. But with CRISPR, we could conceivably change that.

One team at the University of California Riverside has been exploring how to use CRISPR to manipulate and control a type of yeast that transforms sugars into hydrocarbons. Eventually, the hope is to engineer yeast that can create the necessary building blocks for certain polymers, adhesives, and fragrances — rather than relying on inefficient petroleum-based processes. (Further out, this process could even be used to produce biofuels for vehicles, although much work remains to be done.)

And that’s only one project. Other researchers hope CRISPR-engineered yeast can help us reduce our reliance on petrochemicals in a wide variety of areas...

6) Use plants to make drugs and vaccines
Pharmaceutical makers use all kinds of different systems to produce drugs and vaccines, including bacteria, yeast, and mammal cells. Lately, they’ve been especially keen on turning plants or plant cells into factories for metabolites and proteins...

CRISPR can be helpful here for the targeted insertion of specific genes in plants — and to understand how plants genes are regulated, how they respond to foreign molecules, and how they repair their DNA, says Nicola Patron, a molecular and synthetic biologist at the Earlham Institute UK...

7) Destroy viruses like HIV, herpes, and hepatitis
While researchers have come a long way in developing treatments for HIV, herpes, hepatitis, and human papilloma virus, or HPV, they still cause disease and still can’t quite be definitively cured. Bryan Richard Cullen at Duke Medical Center says CRISPR can be used to target and destroy these persistent DNA viruses in ways researchers haven’t be able to before.