Now teaching at the University of Colorado in Boulder, John Rinn focuses on research into the influence of ribonucleic acid (RNA) on establishing unique cellular states in development and disease. His research focus on the noncoding positions of the human genome, the regions that don’t encode for classic protein coding genes. This requires modifying the human genome in stem cell lines to uncover novel regulatory elements that are required to maintain the pluripotent state or prevent cellular differentiation. This also requires genome modifications that represent those identified in human disease, the vast majority of which reside in the noncoding genome.
The advent of CRISPR technologies turbo-boosted these efforts in several ways. Primarily, with the new throughput and ease of screening thousands of previous unexplored regions of the human genome for biological activity. Also this facilitated developing new tools such as CRISPR-Display that serves as a cellular drone. Where the location and cargo can be specified by specific RNA molecule extensions to CRISPR-CAS9 guide sequences (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CRISPR-Display).
Although CRISPR first caught the public eye in 2018, when a Korean scientist allegedly created HIV-resistant babies, scientists have known about it for nine years. CRISPRs are sequences of genetic material that were first found in bacteria and other microorganisms. They allow these invisible creatures to defend themselves by breaking up pieces of harmful DNA.
Later research has shown that CRISPR’s are found in many forms of life. These versatile molecules can be used to make alterations in DNA much faster and cheaper than previous methods.
These so-called biological machines have several applications. They have been used to vaccinate yogurt against viruses and create crops that can better withstand droughts. It’s thought that one day, CRISPRs could destroy entire populations of mosquitos or bring extinct species back to life.
However, their use raises serious ethical questions about placing them in the human body. The method is imprecise – it could inadvertently damage beneficial DNA. Where do we draw the line between using CRISPRs to cure diseases and enhancing desirable traits? Is it right to make changes without the consent of humans yet to be born?
In response, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has recommended that CRISPRs be restricted to treating serious diseases that have no other cure. Risks and benefits should be fully publicized and monitored during clinical trials. Finally, research into human side effects should span several generations.