In 2013, a pair of monkey twins were born at the campus of Kunming Biomedical International and its affiliated Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research. The macaques had been conceived via in vitro fertilization. Then scientists used a new method of DNA engineering known as CRISPR to modify the fertilized eggs by editing three different genes, and they were implanted into a surrogate macaque mother. The twins’ healthy birth marked the first time that CRISPR has been used to make targeted genetic modifications in primates. The study opens promising new avenues for the development of more effective treatments for a range of human diseases.
CRISPR, which was developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere over the last several years, is already transforming how scientists think about genetic engineering, because it allows them to make changes to the genome precisely and relatively easily.
CRISPR can edit the DNA at specific locations on chromosomes. In early 2013, U.S. scientists showed it could be used to genetically engineer any type of animal cells, including human ones, in a petri dish. But the Chinese researchers were the first to demonstrate that this approach can be used in primates to create offspring with specific genetic alterations.
Already, a lab in China has used it to create a fungus-resistant wheat; several groups in China are using the technique on rice in efforts to boost yields; and a group in the U.K. has used it to tweak a gene in barley that helps govern seed germination, which could aid efforts to produce drought-resistant varieties. Indeed, because it is so easy to do and the plants could avoid the lengthy and expensive regulatory process associated with GMOs, the method is increasingly being used by research labs, small companies, and public plant breeders unwilling to take on the expense and risks of conventional genetic engineering.