As they say, nothing happens by accident. UC Berkeley researchers are turning carbon nanotube sensors into a gene delivery platform with the help of CRISPR.

Markita Landry, a chemical and biomolecular engineering assistant professor, initially planned to use the nanotubes as scaffolding structures and study the plant cells more efficiently. While hardy, the materials didn't stay on the surface. Instead, the tubes went deep into the cells.

The experiment was a flop, but she discovered something else. It made the material a more viable and cost-effective method of modifying the genes of food crops, including wheat.

Nanoneedles Can Solve GMO Challenges

For both producers and scientists, editing the gene is a tough challenge. Current methods, such as using a gene gun or introducing gene-carrying bacteria, have risks and limitations.

The guns can potentially destroy the cells while the bacteria do not thrive in some plants. Others may consider using a virus pathogen, but the risks of inserting a viral DNA are high.

Using nanotubes can help resolve these issues, making genetic engineering easier, cheaper, and faster. Based on the experiment published in Nature Nanotechnology, the team successfully delivered edited genes on organic arugula and wheat.

The tubes worked like threaded needles. The researchers attached the DNA to the tube electrostatically, which created the tightest bind.

The material can penetrate not only because it is sturdy but also because it's small. The tube is only 1 nanometer in diameter while the cell walls are at least 5 nanometers. The needle is also long, which allows it to accommodate more genes.

Using CRISPR For A Long-Term Change 

Introducing genes via these tubes had been successful. A day after the experiment, the plant cells emitted a green glow when observed under the UV light. It meant the plant recognized the new gene as its own.

There was a problem, though. "For this to be a widely useful platform, however, we need to express a protein that in and of itself has a permanent effect on the nuclear genome," said Landry.

Enter CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that will help create highly precise genes that can attach to the plant's ribonucleoprotein complex. In turn, the changes in the genome can now become permanent.

The platform is still in its earliest stages. Landry and her colleagues are trying to understand the after-effects of the introduction of the nanotubes on the plant cells.

Should it progress, Landry can send the nanotubes even by mail, and the recipients can thaw or freeze them anytime. Most of all, the edited genes may lead to more robust plants with more high-quality yields.

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