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Performing a CRISPR-Cas9 process. Photo: Gregor Fischer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Scientists were able to alter an enzyme from a thermophilic bacteria so it can be used by CRISPR to edit human genes more effectively, per a study published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.

Why it matters: CRISPR is powerful but can sometimes cause large deletions or move DNA inadvertently. To make it more precise, researchers have been testing hundreds of new enzymes. Study author Feng Zhang says Cas12b's small size and precise targeting will enable it to be used for in vivo applications in primary human cells.

Background: The Cas12b family of enzymes was first brought to attention in 2015, and led to some recent studies (here and here) better defining their uses and limitations.

  • This study's enzyme, called BhCas12b, is from a bacterium (Bacillus hisashii) that lives in hot environments like geysers and volcanoes.
  • The main problem of using Cas12b was its temperature restriction. In its natural state, it's ineffective as a gene-editing tool at the lower body temperature of humans.

What they did: Zhang, who is a core institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, tells Axios that the team studied its three dimensional shape and made changes they predicted would make it more active at lower temperatures.

What they found: With the modifications and its naturally small size, BhCas12b was able to cut both DNA strands without many off-targets, Zhang says, and can efficiently edit genomes in primary human T cells.

"The size of the protein matters because for many applications, it needs to be packaged into a minimal viral vector for delivery. Viruses naturally have a restricted cargo capacity, so a smaller genome editing enzyme is beneficial."
— Feng Zhang

Outside perspective: Scientists not involved in this study say it shows Cas12b can be altered to become a promising CRISPR enzyme, but note that this small study should be validated with further research.

  • Ilya Finkelstein, assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Texas-Austin, says he found it interesting they took a protein not normally functional in humans and engineered it to work. "There are hundreds of variants of these proteins. ... This suggests that the CRISPR toolkit will continue to grow."
  • Konstantin Severinov, principal investigator for Rutgers' Waksman Institute of Microbiology, says: "The study shows that Cas12b ... can be used, after some clever laboratory tweaking, for genomic editing in human cells. It may offer some advantages during editing compared to Cas9 and Cas12a."

Between the lines: Most CRISPR testing uses the first discovered enzyme, CAS9, so it's unlikely there will be a large shift to other enzymes soon, at least until they are proven to be safe and become cheaper.

  • "The one that is used by most people [Cas9] is not the best, it was simply the first to be characterised and reduced to practice. So there is clear room for improvement and many people are looking for better ones," Severinov says.
  • "[T]ime will tell whether Cas12b can take the crown from Cas9," Finkelstein adds.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Texas Republicans pass new congressional maps in their favor

Photo: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Texas House voted 84-59 late Monday to approve new congressional district maps that reduce the number of districts with Black and Hispanic majorities, per the Texas Tribune.

Why it matters: The legislation comes after recent census figures found Texas' growing diverse population doesn't bode well for Republicans, who then worked to protect incumbents with the redrawn maps.

1 hour ago - World

North Korea's military fires another ballistic missile into sea

A woman in Seoul, South Korea, walks past a television image if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired at least one ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on Tuesday, per multiple reports.

Why it matters: Pyongyang's latest in a series of recent missile launches happened hours after U.S. officials emphasized their commitment to restart negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which have stalled since talks broke down during the Trump administration, AP notes.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Trump sues National Archives, Jan. 6 committee to block records request

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to block the National Archives from releasing White House records to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, citing executive privilege.

Why it matters: It's the latest escalation in Trump's campaign to disrupt the committee's sweeping probe into the circumstances surrounding Jan. 6, including his actions and communications leading up to the Capitol attack.