Biologists from the University of California, San Diego, are using the gene changing technology CRISPR/Cas9 to edit gene regulatory elements in their native genomic environments, revealing new fundamental mechanisms that control gene activity.

The research has potential human health benefits such as aiding the creation of technology that could prevent the inheritance of defective genes and the development of new epigenetic therapies.

Valentino Gantz, an assistant researcher at the University of California, San Diego, said: “Technical advances enabled by active genetics represent an innovative toolkit to engineer organisms with novel features, thereby enabling a new era of advances in synthetic biology.”

In 2015, Gantz worked alongside fellow biologist Ethan Bier to develop a breakthrough technology known as active genetics. The technique resulted in parents passing on a genetic trait to most of their offspring instead of just 50% receiving the trait under standard inheritance.

Now Gantz, together with biologist Shannon Xu, has used active genetics to analyse the genetic control of the gene responsible for co-ordinating the formation of wing veins in fruit flies during their development. They aimed to understand the mechanisms controlling gene activity in space and time, resulting in a wing vein being placed in its correct place. They will use their findings to understand how genetic circuits evolve in a range of different species, including humans.

There findings provide evidence for a new potential form of interaction between chromosomes that contributes to the control of gene activity. This implies that similar forms of cross-talk between chromosomes may occur in other organisms which is a potential target for epigenetic intervention.

Epigenetic therapies use medication or other epigenome influencing techniques to treat medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and mental illnesses. Therefore the findings with the fruit flies could one day be applied to developing the treatment of human medical conditions.

The researchers also demonstrated the significant advantages of editing gene regulatory sequences in their native location to uncover new functionalities. This could lead to a better understanding of how control switches work in the body to turn certain genes on and off.

“These advances should encourage other researchers to employ active genetics in a broad range of organisms to enable and accelerate their research,” said Xu.

The researchers claim that their genetic engineering manipulations could open new avenues of research within animal engineering that are out of reach from the field’s current technologies.