An image via the CRISPR-Cas technology that has made the research possible. / R. C.

The bacteria that lives forever

Genetic manipulation. Spanish scientists have recovered parts of proteins from over two billion years ago which can be used to cure genetic illnesses

RAÚL PÉREZ-JIMÉNEZ

The solutions for illnesses that devastate humanity today could be found in proteins which have been identified from over two billion years ago.

An international research group led by the CIC nanoGUNE laboratory in San Sebstián has for the first time reconstructed the ancestors of the CRISPR-Cas gene editing system and studied the way they have evolved over time.

The results of this work, which have just been published in the Nature Microbiology scientific journal, look to have "revolutionary applications" in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses which devastate human beings today such as cancer, diabetes and even others such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

"It will take over ten years for all this to be applied clinically, but we have taken an important step in our knowledge of how we have evolved from a molecular point of view," says Raúl Pérez-Jiménez, who headed the research project.

It was supported by specialist groups at the CSIC, the University of Alicante, The Ciberer biomedical research unit into rare illnesses, the Ramón y Cajal hospital-IRYCIS and other Spanish and international institutions.

Repairing genomes

The CRISPR-Cas technology, which was defined by Francis Mojica, a scientist at the University of Alicante, revolutionised genetical editing about ten years ago.

Thanks to this technology it is now possible for scientists to cut the genome and repair it wherever they want to, using a type of molecular scissors.

The Nanobiotechnology group headed by Pérez-Jiménez has spent years studying the way proteins have evolved from the origins of life to the present day.

The team focuses on carrying out reconstructions of ancient proteins and genes of extinct organisms to see what qualities they have and whether they could be used in today's biotechnological applications.

Using computer techniques, they have successfully reconstructed the evolutionary history of the CRISPR-Cas systems from 2.6 billion years ago to today.

The study of the evolution of the DNA and the ways in which the body has repaired its damage has opened the way to the design of therapies with the ability to repair cells.

A new 'magic bullet'

The research has led to confidence in the future viability of modifying mutated cells which cause an illness. It could be cancer, diabetes and even ALS.

"The idea," Pérez-Jiménez explains, "is to replace the bad information in a strand of DNA with good information. The objective now is to devise a system of transport which can be introduced directly into our cells, one which directly targets those which have the potential to be modified".

A new 'magic bullet', as German scientist Paul Elrich, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1908, defined it.