×

Gene Method Makes Mutants More Easily, and Sparks Concerns

Scientists have found a way to create mutant organisms more reliably, using a recently developed gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. And just as in the "X-Men" movies, not everyone is happy about that.

The procedure, known as mutagenic chain reaction, is described in a paper published online Thursday by the journal Science. It uses genetic engineering to put a specific mutation in both copies of a gene associated with a particular trait. That gets around a cellular mechanism that usually keeps recessive mutations from being expressed.

UCSD fly gene mutation
Source: UCSD

Here's the classic, if overly simplistic, example: Children inherit sets of chromosomes from each of their parents, with each chromosome containing the genes for various traits. A blue-eyed child has to inherit the blue-eyed gene from both the mother and the father. Otherwise, the dominant brown-eyed gene trumps the recessive blue-eyed gene.

In reality, eye color is determined by more than one gene. But the same principle applies to genetic defects such as muscular dystrophy: Even if you inherit the mutated gene for muscular dystrophy from one parent, the normal gene from the other parent can compensate and keep you from getting the disease.

More from NBC News:
ISIS is rich, but spending money fast
There's no honeymoon start to this 2016 campaign
Prize-linked savings: You can bank on winning this contest

The downside for genetic engineers is that the mechanism makes it harder to introduce desired mutations. Mutagenic chain reaction, or MCR, makes the job easier. The researchers behind the Science study tweaked the CRISPR genome-editing procedure in fruit flies to make a mutation that's generated on one copy of a chromosome spread automatically to the other copy. Thus, both copies of the gene carry the mutation.

"MCR is remarkably active in all cells of the body, with one result being that such mutations are transmitted to offspring via the germline with 95 percent efficiency," study lead author Valentino Gantz, a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego, said in a news release.

Profound consequences

UCSD Professor Ethan Bier, the paper's co-author, said the technique has "several profound consequences." It could accelerate the pace of genetic research, and facilitate the rapid dispersal of genetically engineered traits.

For example, researchers already have worked out genetic codes to prevent mosquitoes from spreading malaria and other diseases, but it's not easy to breed mosquitoes to incorporate those codes. With MCR, the codes could spread to virtually all the individuals in a mosquito population in as few as 10 generations, "which is less than one season for mosquitoes," Bier said.

Gantz said the same technique could be used to spread genes among cells within an individual using modified viruses, or even hunt down and fix HIV-infected cells or cancer cells.

Serious risks

The researchers acknowledged there could be serious risks as well. Bier said scientists would have to guard against having MCR organisms get loose in the wild. "It is also possible that MCR technology could be intentionally misused, which should be considered as a risk on par with that associated with nefarious uses of select agents," he said.

Bier noted that biologists worked out safety procedures for recombinant DNA technology in 1975 at what is now known as the Asilomar Conference. "Perhaps a similar meeting should be convened to discuss how MCR technology should be regulated at both federal and institutional levels," Bier said.

Read MoreOpinion: FDA identifies the idiot gene

In a news report accompanying the research paper, Science quoted Harvard geneticist George Church as saying the paper shouldn't have been published because the technique described by Gantz and Bier didn't include adequate safeguards. "It is a step too far," Church said.

Bier rejected the criticism, saying that he and his colleagues thought carefully about the requirements for the research as well as the safeguards. The fruit-fly experiments were conducted under what Gantz and Bier called "triple-contained" safety measures.