17 October 2017

Controlled evolution

What prospects does genetic engineering open up

Konstantin Ermolaev, RIA Novosti

Pavel Volchkov, head of the Laboratory of Genomic Engineering at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, helped the special project "Social Navigator" to understand what GMOs are, genomic engineering and how it can affect human life and society in the future.


We often see the inscription "Does not contain GMOs" on products in stores. For some, it has become a kind of quality mark. However, what is it – a genetically modified organism – and how do these changes occur? Let's figure it out.

In the image and likeness

The term "genetically modified organism" implies that the genome of an object has been changed. How and why is it being changed? Take wheat, for example. You have a certain variety that has a good yield, taste, unpretentiousness to environmental conditions – in general, it is good in everything except one thing: it is susceptible to a virus that can destroy the entire crop.

You know that there is another kind of this plant, wild, unsightly, poor-yielding, but resistant to this disease. There is only one way out in this situation: to transfer the gene that is responsible for resistance to the virus, and preferably only it, because you don't need everything else, from a wild plant to your variety.

There are several options for how this can be done. The first is classical breeding, which mankind has used for centuries. The second is to use genomic engineering and transfer this gene with the help of high technologies. It is worth noting that the result in both cases will be the same, only much more time will be spent on the first one.

"In the first case, you will start to cross them, then cross them back, since you only need one gene, that minor modification. For this you have to go a long way in 10-15 crosses. And for 15 years in a row you will do it if it is an annual plant, and if it is a biennial, then 30, instead of taking and changing this one gene," Pavel Volchkov said.

What and how to edit

Today, scientists have learned to compare information about certain signs of an organism with its genes.

"When we have enough data, we can say that specific genes and their allelic [alternative] variants are responsible for a specific trait (for example, eye color)," Pavel Volchkov said.

In other words, scientists understand which part of the DNA chain (the sequence of nucleotides) is responsible for the desired sign or predisposition to the disease.

The process of gene replacement or modification occurs with the help of CRISPR/Cas9, a new technology for editing the genomes of higher organisms based on the bacterial immune system. With the help of specialized Cas proteins, bacteria destroy infections that try to infect them.

To put it simply, CRISPR/Cas9 is a high–precision molecular scalpel. His task is to find and cut out an unnecessary or mutant sequence of nucleotides. DNA will not die from this, but will be restored by a healthy copy from the paired chromosome due to the natural process of DNA repair.

If there is no paired chromosome, simultaneously with Cas9, a section of the correct gene can be introduced into the cell, which will become an example for the development of the organism in the future. CRISPR/Cas9 is programmed in such a way that it can only interact with the affected area, which ensures its high accuracy.

What if…

Great hopes are pinned on this technology, because with its help it will be possible to prevent genetic, oncological, cardiovascular and other diseases.

In 2017, a human embryo was edited for the first time using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. He was freed from a defective gene that leads to the development of a serious disease – hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Opponents of genomic engineering believe that if humanity starts actively editing its genome, it will lose geniuses. In particular, Stephen Hawking was cited as an example: if his genome was changed, would he then become a genius?

"Modern permitted technologies used by medicine allow choosing an embryo without mutations at the stage of in vitro fertilization. That is, now we don't use editing, but we can use selection. This is partly a kind of medical eugenics: from three or four embryos, choose the one without mutation. In the case of Stephen Hawking, he would rather not have been chosen," Pavel Volchkov notes.

According to him, in the case of genome editing in ideal conditions, Stephen Hawking would most likely be, but without his syndrome.

"When editing the genome, the same selection does not occur, when you say "this is to live, and this is to die," you simply remove the disease," the head of the laboratory stressed.

Penicillin of the XXI century

Many diseases of the XXI century, for example oncological, cardiovascular, mental, have become so widespread due to the fact that a person has begun to live much longer. Previously, a person simply died before they reached them, from infections or hunger.

"Death is programmed into our genome. It makes a lot of sense. The shorter the life span of an average individual, the faster the population evolves," Pavel Volchkov noted.

In other words, modern technologies, medicine, and in general the quality of life slow down our evolution. Humanity has learned to fight many diseases, to provide itself with enough food and to protect itself from many natural phenomena. Thanks to this, we began to live longer, but our body is not designed for this. It resembles the situation with equipment from an electronics store. We can buy, for example, a TV, which will have a warranty of about 2 years, and then no one guarantees uninterrupted operation. It's the same with a person. From a certain age in the body, some processes begin to gradually turn off.

"Due to the fact that our evolutionary process has stopped, we can try to change ourselves with the help of genomic engineering. This may not make us immortal, but it can raise the quality of life, at least reduce the risks of diseases, for example, oncological, cardiovascular, and so on," the expert stressed.

According to Pavel Volchkov, scientists today can already prevent some oncological diseases in the bud. However, the technology needs to be tested on animals to make sure that it does not lead to anything bad.

Everything will come in handy on the farm

Genomic engineering can not only improve human life as a species, but also help in its economic activities, for example, make animals resistant to viruses that kill them or can be transmitted from them to humans. Scientists of the MIPT Laboratory of Genomic Engineering are working on the creation of animals resistant to avian influenza viruses and African swine fever. In addition to the fact that due to these viruses, the country is suffering huge economic losses, there is a threat to human life. And if ASF is more of a Russian problem, then the avian influenza virus is a global one.

If the African plague virus enters the population of our pigs, then in seven to nine days it will destroy it all.

"Imagine that the virus enters a farm where there are several tens or even hundreds of thousands of animals. Moreover, according to the legislation, all animals will be destroyed within a radius of 30 kilometers. For the Belgorod region, one of the largest concentrations of pigs in In Russia, and in the world, it will be very burdensome. We'll have to destroy a couple million pigs. This will lead to huge economic losses," the expert notes.

According to him, exactly the same problem with avian flu, with only one nuance: this disease is still hypothetically dangerous for humans. The avian influenza virus has a fairly high probability of passing to humans and the same pigs, which can lead not just to an epidemic, but to a pandemic.

"This summer there was a quarantine in the Moscow region. The whole bird was destroyed – multibillion-dollar losses and the likelihood of infection for humans. Of course, the latter rarely happens here, but in China it is a problem," Pavel Volchkov said.

And imagine that avian and human influenza viruses get into a poultry house with a million heads. The output will be a terrible mixture. It is possible to draw an analogy with the Spanish woman, who in 1918, according to various estimates, claimed the lives of 50 to 200 million people.

Genomic engineering is the technology of the future

In order for genome editing to become as commonplace as a smartphone is now, it is necessary to develop universal technologies and methods. This is also one of the main areas of work of Pavel Volchkov's laboratory.

"We must understand that CRISPR/Cas9 is one tool. You don't make a car with just a screwdriver, do you? And in this case, CRISPR/Cas9 is a screwdriver. There are also other tools. Ideally, in the image and likeness of Henry Ford, we are trying to assemble a conveyor belt where CRISPR/Cas9 occupies an important, but not the only place," the expert said.

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