The DNA-editing tool CRISPR has been heralded as a game-changing technology, allowing scientists to precisely target the essential building blocks of life. That means producing lab rats with specific genetic code more quickly; it also means creating mosquitos that can't carry malaria. It could treat cancer; it may help us combat some of the most intractable genetic diseases—and it's brought us one step closer to genetically engineered babies. And now researchers have developed one more groundbreaking use: as a simple, fast, and inexpensive way to detect infection.
The new technique, announced in a paper published in Science, is called SHERLOCK (Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing). Essentially, it's a detection system for certain bits of genetic code (RNA and DNA)—it might be a sequence for Zika or Dengue virus, for example—that releases a fluorescent signal when it finds such signature code. Some further tinkering increased the system's sensitivity, so it's now able to detect low levels of Zika virus in serum, urine, and saliva.
It can also differentiate among strains of bacteria, distinguishing between, say, different varieties of bacterial pneumonia. That's helpful in identifying whether an infection may be resistant to antibiotics, instead of having to work by trial and error. SHERLOCK can detect cancer mutations and can be used for rapid human genotyping (the kind of genetic health information you get from 23andme). It does all of this quickly, at high sensitivity and at low cost. Designing and synthesizing a test, according to the authors, can be done in just a few days, for $0.61 per test.
SHERLOCK adapts CRISPR's genius, which borrows a naturally occurring defense mechanism in microbes. The mechanism protects them from bacteriophages—viruses that infect and replicate within them—by creating catalogs of genetic material from whatever viruses they encountered. That helps the cells and their offspring recognize and fight off future infection (though now researchers think the relationship between CRISPR and bacteriophages may be more complicated than simply one of attack and defend).
Scientists adapted CRISPR's identification capabilities into the groundbreaking gene-editing process, opening up vast new horizons for research. And now SHERLOCK stands poised to deliver faster, more accurate, and cheaper diagnosis thanks to the same remarkable system.
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