Synthetic Biology of RNA
RNA traditionally is viewed as a passive information carrier that connect our genomic blueprints to the sets of proteins that determine how each cell behaves. However, the past decade has revealed a myriad of other functions that continues to reshape our understanding of this versatile biomolecule. These insights range from how RNA directs tissue development to aiding how bacteria sense and respond to their environment. From an engineering perspective, each discovery creates the opportunity to develop new technologies to improve how we gauge our health and treat diseases that afflict us.
One of the greatest examples was the discovery of RNAs involved in adaptive immune systems in bacteria and archaea called CRISPR-Cas systems. These systems use RNA to recognize matching genetic material from selfish genetic elements bent on infecting these microbes. However, this property was quickly co-opted to form powerful tools that easily and selectively cut matching DNA sequences, which is revolutionizing our ability to edit DNA sequences at will —whether in industrial bacteria to overproduce therapeutic compounds or in humans to cure otherwise untreatable genetic diseases. These same CRISPR technologies are also being applied to rapidly and cheaply diagnose viral infections and to serve as tailored-spectrum antimicrobials that can selectively eradicate pathogens while sparing our commensal microbiota.
CRISPR technologies hold incredible potential, yet they are derived from immune systems that we are still trying to understand. We are exploring the full diversity of these immune systems in nature and how their functions have evolved to protect microbes against foreign invaders. We are also using these insights to advance how we study infectious disease and how we combat multidrug-resistant infections.