US researchers have developed a more efficient, smaller tool for genetic engineering, effectively a pair of tiny molecular scissors that can snip DNA in specific places, publishing their work in the journal Nature. Called Cas9, it's based on a recently-developed system known as CRISPR, which was first found in bacteria but has since been used to selectively alter DNA in all sorts of organisms. One problem with CRISPR is that the components are relatively large in molecular terms, making it tricky to package it all into the kind of viral vectors that might be used to deliver gene editing technology into human patients to treat diseases caused by faulty genes.
The current CRISPR system works using the Cas9 gene from bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes. After sifting through around 600 different bacterial species, the researchers found that the technique also works with a Cas9 gene taken from the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which is 25 per cent smaller than the Streptococcus version.
For now, genetic engineering using CRISPR and Cas9 is still at a highly experimental stage, but there are hopes that in the future - as long as it's safe - it could be a way of developing new treatments for people affected by genetic diseases.