Scientists are driven by the desire to understand how nature works. Such curiosity has not only expanded our biological knowledge, but also enabled the creation of technologies for drug discovery and development. This is well exemplified by the quest to develop gene editing tools, which allow scientists to better investigate our own DNA. Studying how our cells repair their DNA after they receive damage from external factors such as UV light have allowed scientists to identify novel proteins called recombinases that cut out damaged DNA fragments and replace them with new, repaired ones. There are many types of recombinases, each binding a different area of our DNA under different circumstances. If we could engineer a single recombinase to target diverse  genetic fragments, scientists could edit patient DNA, fixing genetic mutations and improving human health.

Researchers at University California Berkeley identified a recombinase, IS110, that could be a promising candidate. It can modify different genetic regions by associating with an intermediary molecule known as RNA. This molecule, similarly, to DNA, has a filamentous- like structure, which based on its chemical composition can bind different DNA sequences. By tweaking the chemical properties of the RNA, the researchers were able to insert donor DNA at user-specified DNA regions in test bacteria. 

This discovery is a promising tool for the rearrangement of large genomic regions, expanding our  toolkit for precise genome editing. Gene editing tools have been used mostly in research settings, but they are proving themselves to be extremely valuable in medicine too. They have been successfully used to cure previously untreatable genetic diseases such as sickle cell and cancer. The discovery of IS100 exemplifies how we can leverage what is present in nature to develop transformative technologies for humanity.

The study was performed at the University of California Berkeley and the Arc Institute by Matthew Durrant and Nicholas Perry in the lab of Patrick Hsu.

Correspondent: Allegra Carlotta Scarpa

Research Article: Bridge RNAs direct programmable recombination of target and donor DNA (Nature)

Press Article: Programmable RNA-guided enzymes for next-generation genome editing (Nature)

Image Credit: iStock

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