CRISPR Gene Editing Produces Unexpected Behavioral Results in Aminal Experiment

Scientists recently used the CRISPR gene editing technology to alter the behaviors of test animals, a result that took the researchers by surprise.

The results add a new dimension to the transformational impact that CRISPR can provide in curing disease and correcting genetic anomalies.

Gene Editing in Hamsters Creates Surprises

Researchers used CRISPR to remove the Avpr1a receptor in a group of hamsters. The receptor responds to the hormone vasopressin, which is connected to social actions, including aggression, bonding, communication, cooperation and dominance. The research team predicted that the test subjects would exhibit reduced social communication and aggressive behavior with the Avpr1a receptor removed.

However, the results were just the opposite. The hamsters that had had the receptor removed demonstrated higher levels of aggression and social communication. The typical sex differences were not as expected, as well. Hamsters of both sexes demonstrated higher levels of aggression towards others of the same sex.

The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of North America (PNAS).

Neuroscientist H, Elliott Albers of Georgia State University called the results a “startling conclusion.” He noted that the results show that the global effects of the receptor are inhibitory in nature.

What Is CRISPR Gene Editing?

CRISPR is a gene editing technology that allows scientists to edit genes, cutting and pasting them into different sections of DNA. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a family of nucleic acid sequences.

CRISPR has multiple applications, letting researchers turn genes on and off without altering a DNA sequence. It was adapted from the natural defenses in bacteria and archaea. Those simple organisms would steal genes from viruses to use as a microbial defense mechanism.

Hamsters Are Common Stand-In for Humans

Hamsters are frequently used as a stand-in for human beings in these types of experiments. That’s because hamsters have similar social organizational skills to ours. The experiment used Syrian hamsters, which is the species in which vasopressin first was shown to influence sociality. The species also has a stress response similar to humans, producing the hormone cortisol when they’re stressed.

The genetic similarities have interesting implications as researchers consider how the results may apply to humans. Scientists believe the insights could shape how human genes interact with neural circuits to shape how we interact with others.

Take, for example, flank marking, which is a scent-leaving behavior rodents use establish dominance and choose makes. It was a behavior altered in the hamsters that received the CRISPR treatment.

Humans do not use flank marking, but differences in neural conditions do play a role in human social behavior. For example, some people with anxiety have a major fear of social engagement with others. Could the CRISPR research provide a better understanding of these conditions and how to treat them?

Transformational Impact of CRISPR Technology

CRISPR gene editing has advanced significantly in recent years. Here are just a few of the achievements in medicine, food science, public health and other areas in recent years:

  • The successful cure of HIV in 5 of 13 mice in a study that combined CRISPR technology with antiretroviral drugs
  • Curing blindness by directly injecting drops containing CRISPR DNA fragments into a patient’s eyeball
  • Treating sickle cell disease using an experimental CRISPR gene-editing treatment
  • Producing mouse litters of the same sex, which could have significant implications in poultry breeding to create all-female chicken broods
  • Altering genes in the mosquito that is one of the most prevalent disease vectors for the West Nile virus
  • Removing asparagine from wheat. When toasted or baked, asparagine converts to a cancer-causing substance. CRISPR resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the substance

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