United Kingdom scientists edit genome to interpret key gene functions in early…

Glen Mclaughlin
September 22, 2017

After the egg is fertilised, it divides until at about seven days it forms a ball of around 200 cells called the "blastocyst".

Kathy Niakan and his team said the United Kingdom has a competitive edge in human embryology because the country has a supportive regulatory framework, as well as public and charitable agencies prepared to fund research in the field.

The team of scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London used CRISPR-the experimental biomedical technique that utilizes snippets of bacteria as a pair of "molecular scissors"-to slice out the gene responsible for producing a protein known as OCT4". "Pluripotent" stem cells can become any other type of cell, and they can be derived from embryos or created from adult cells such as skin cells.

To perform the study, a team led by developmental biologist Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute in London used a total of 58 embryos that had been generated in fertility clinics as a result of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. OCT4 is expressed very early in development - as early as the third day, when the embryo consists of just eight near-identical cells.

The study team used CRISPR/Cas9 to "turn off" the production of one particular gene, known as the OCT4.

The researchers found, without OCT4, the blastocyst couldn't form. Researchers must apply for a license to conduct research, and embryos used for research can not develop for longer than 14 days after fertilization and can not be implanted into a woman's womb.

"One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn't working", Dr Kathy Niakan from the Francis Crick Institute said.

OCT4 is a gene that is thought to be required for reprogramming in human cells, but whose function in early human embryos is poorly understood.

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"Other research methods, including studies in mice, suggested a later and more focused role for OCT4, so our results highlight the need for human embryo research".

OCT4 may not just be useful in embryo development.

Future experiments could use CRISPR to investigate the role of other genes.

It is the first time that researchers have carried out this pioneering procedure to reach a deeper understanding of the earliest stages of human life.

Lead author Kathy Niakan (Francis Crick Institute, London) says she hopes the technique can be used by others to identify a whole host of genetic factors that affect pregnancy, but are now poorly understood: "One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn't working".

The study showed that making accurately targeted changes in DNA can lean-to new light on the way a fertilised egg grows into viable foetus and may lead to improved treatments for infertility.

"It may take many years to achieve such an understanding", Niakan said. A lower activity of this gene could explain why miscarriage occurs after embryos fail to implant normally. "This research will significantly help treatment for infertile couples, by helping us to identify the factors that are essential for ensuring that human embryos can develop into healthy babies".

Niakan says that her study showing that CRISPR can successfully delete a gene opens opportunities for studying exactly what function genes have.

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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