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Gene editing tech could be used to ‘program’ smart materials

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Harvard University engineers have demonstrated that CRISPR gene editing technology can be used to control responsive materials, with applications in tissue engineering, bioelectronics, and diagnostics.

CRISPR technology uses an adapted form of the CRISPR-Cas9 antiviral system and a synthetic guide RNA to target and edit genes far more precisely, cheaply, and efficiently than before. The technique has quickly gained recognition as a breakthrough technology with the potential to transform aspects of medicine, agriculture, and many other sectors.

According to a Science paper written by researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, CRISPR could also be used to control responsive ‘smart’ materials. The researchers recounted how a CRISPR enzyme – once activated – can prompt various materials  to perform a range of actions, such as releasing useful substances or changing its structure.

In the first of their demonstrations, the researchers incorporated single-stranded target DNA sequences into materials, which can ‘anchor’ cargo, or hold the material in a certain structure. When stimulating the material with a CRISPR variant (Cas12a), the researchers were able to release the cargo (such as fluorescent dye or enzymes) or change the structure of the material (deploying gold nanoparticles and live cells in the process).

“Our study shows that the power of CRISPR can be harnessed outside of the laboratory for controlling the behaviour of DNA-responsive materials. We developed a range of materials with very different capabilities that highlight the breadth of applications enabled by programmable CRISPR-responsive smart materials,” said Professor James Collins, who led the study.

“These applications include novel theranostic strategies, point-of-care diagnostics, and the regional monitoring of epidemic outbreaks and environmental hazards.”

The researchers hope that this approach could be used to develop materials with diagnostic capabilities, devices for environmental monitoring, or for releasing living cells into tissue scaffolds.

The researchers also developed a CRISPR-responsive smart material capable of acting as an electric fuse which interrupts a current when stimulated, or as a controllable valve for slowing the passage of fluids; this was made to behave like a resistor when regulating the flow of a liquid carrying electrolytes.

Professor Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, described the work as a “breakthrough study” which “demonstrates the value of CRISPR technology for entirely new fields, ranging from diagnostics and theragnostics to bioelectronics, and marks yet another inspiring inflection point for biomedical developments enabled by this bioinspired technology.”

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