Genome editing reveals role of gene important for human embryo development
CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing shows that the protein OCT4 is essential in very early days of human embryo development
Researchers have used genome editing technology to reveal the role of a key gene in human embryos in the first few days of development. This is the first time that genome editing has been used to study gene function in human embryos, which could help scientists to better understand the biology of our early development.
The team used genome editing techniques to stop a key gene from producing a protein called OCT4, which normally becomes active in the first few days of human embryo development. After the egg is fertilised, it divides until at about seven days it forms a ball of around 200 cells called the ‘blastocyst’. The study found that human embryos need OCT4 to correctly form a blastocyst.
“We were surprised to see just how crucial this gene is for human embryo development, but we need to continue our work to confirm its role. ther research methods, including studies in mice, suggested a later and more focussed role for OCT4, so our results highlight the need for human embryo research.”
Dr Norah Fogarty from the Francis Crick Institute First author of the study
“One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn’t working. Now we have demonstrated an efficient way of doing this, we hope that other scientists will use it to find out the roles of other genes. If we knew the key genes that embryos need to develop successfully, we could improve IVF treatments and understand some causes of pregnancy failure. It may take many years to achieve such an understanding, our study is just the first step.”
Dr Kathy Niakan from the Francis Crick Institute Who led the research
The research was published in Nature and led by scientists at the Francis Crick Institute, in collaboration with colleagues at Cambridge University, Oxford University, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Seoul National University and Bourn Hall Clinic. It was chiefly funded by the UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome and Cancer Research UK.
The team spent over a year optimising their techniques using mouse embryos and human embryonic stem cells before starting work on human embryos. To inactivate OCT4, they used an editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to change the DNA of 41 human embryos. After seven days, embryo development was stopped and the embryos were analysed.
The embryos used in the study were donated by couples who had undergone IVF treatment, with frozen embryos remaining in storage; the majority were donated by couples who had completed their family, and wanted their surplus embryos to be used for research. The study was done under a research licence and strict regulatory oversight from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK Government’s independent regulator overseeing infertility treatment and research.
As well as human embryo development, OCT4 is thought to be important in stem cell biology. ‘Pluripotent’ stem cells can become any other type of cell, and they can be derived from embryos or created from adult cells such as skin cells. Human embryonic stem cells are taken from a part of the developing embryo that has high levels of OCT4.
“We have the technology to create and use pluripotent stem cells, which is undoubtedly a fantastic achievement, but we still don’t understand exactly how these cells work. Learning more about how different genes cause cells to become and remain pluripotent will help us to produce and use stem cells more reliably.”
Dr James Turner Co-author of the study from the Francis Crick Institute
“This is exciting and important research. The study has been carried out with full regulatory oversight and offers new knowledge of the biological processes at work in the first five or six days of a human embryo’s healthy development. Kathy Niakan and colleagues are providing new understanding of the genes responsible for a crucial change when groups of cells in the very early embryo first become organised and set on different paths of development. The processes at work in these embryonic cells will be of interest in many areas of stem cell biology and medicine.”
Sir Paul Nurse Director of the Francis Crick Institute
“Successful IVF treatment is crucially dependent on culture systems that provide an optimal environment for healthy embryo development. Many embryos arrest in culture, or fail to continue developing after implantation; this research will significantly help treatment for infertile couples, by helping us to identify the factors that are essential for ensuring that human embryos can develop into healthy babies.”
Dr. Kay Elder Study co-author from the Bourn Hall Clinic
“This study represents an important step in understanding human embryonic development. The acquisition of this knowledge will be essential to develop new treatments against developmental disorders and could also help understand adult diseases such as diabetes that may originate during the early stage of life. Thus, this research will open new fields of opportunity for basic and translational applications.”
Dr Ludovic Vallier Co-author on the study from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Wellcome – MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute
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Notes to Editor
The research was funded by the Francis Crick Institute, which receives its core funding from Cancer Research UK, the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.
The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Its work is helping to understand why disease develops and to translate discoveries into new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.
An independent organisation, its founding partners are the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, Wellcome, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King’s College London.
The Crick was formed in 2015, and in 2016 it moved into a brand new state-of-the-art building in central London which brings together 1500 scientists and support staff working collaboratively across disciplines, making it the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe.
The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.
Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate.
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