Iowa State University researchers are helping to advance new techniques that allow scientists to site-specifically mutate and edit the genes of living organisms. The two researchers, co-authors of a study published this week in the journal Nature, are breaking ground in making custom changes to the genome of live zebrafish by utilizing site-directed molecular scissors known as transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs). Through the TALENs system, researchers for the first time are able to cut out portions of zebrafish DNA and insert artificial replacements. That allows researchers to deactivate – and possibly activate – targeted genes, opening new possibilities to study genetics during early development as well as adult life. The innovation could have sweeping applications in agriculture and the study of human disease, said Ying Wang, a postdoctoral research associate in genetics, development and cell biology and one of the co-first authors of the study.
Essner said zebrafish share roughly 90 percent of their genetic makeup with humans, so studying their development can shed new light on human disease. That’s especially true during the early embryonic stages of development, he said. “Most cancers are caused by sporadic mutations in genes over time,” Essner said. “What we’re doing here could lead to the ability to manipulate those genes, even in an adult.” The ability to activate zebrafish genes – essentially switching them on and off – could lead to breakthroughs in treatments for cancer and a range of other diseases in humans and animals, he said.