DNA tape recorder to help unravel mysteries of cell history

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Researchers have stumbled upon an innovative technology that can help mark and trace the growth of cells in animals, according to the results of the study published in Science journal. The breakthrough came when attempts to destroy a single gene in a Zebrafish embryo using DNA editing technology led to somewhat unexpected results.

The human body, and advanced forms of animal life out there for that matter, all start as a single fertilized egg before multiplying into trillions of cells of different kinds. Developmental biology is the scientific field which attempts trace the history of this process by looking at how the genetic code develops with each stage of cell division.

The Zebrafish are a species of minnows whose genetic codes share many similarities with the human genome. It is also relatively easy to manipulate their genetic code and hence, they are commonly used as laboratory animals in genetic research.

The biologists were trying to completely obliterate a  single gene in a zebrafish embryo using a sophisticated DNA editing technique called CRISPR. But in the process, they ended up developing an exciting new way to “mark” and trace the development of complex cells in a body from a starting pool of few initial progenitor cells.

The technique, given the longish yet very apt acronym GESTALT (meaning “change” in German), is a radical improvement on earlier more imprecise methods used to study cell development. In simple terms, it involves injecting a cell in the embryo stage with a genetic “barcode” which is then inherited by its daughter cells. In the study, the researchers were able to successfully trace the origins of hundreds of thousands of cells in the organs and tissue of adult zebrafish by identifying the cells containing the “barcode”.

The results of the study suggest that a few progenitor cells maybe responsible for the development of majority of tissue in most organs. The findings could have deep implications on our understanding of cellular growth and development. The technique could also have profound implications on cancer research, since it could help understand how the disease originates and spreads from a few initial cells.

The study was the result of collaboration between researchers at University of Washington at Seattle and Harvard University. The GESTALT technique, hailed as a “creative and innovative use of [the] CRISPR technique” by James Briscoe, Developmental Biologist at the Fracis Crick Institute in London, could very well define the future of the field for years to come.