The Zika virus (image) has affected over 60 million people, mostly in South America. It has potentially devastating consequences for pregnant women and their unborn children, many of whom are born with severe microcephaly and other developmental and neurological abnormalities. There is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for the virus. A new Tel Aviv University (TAU) study uses a genetic screen to identify genes that protect cells from Zika viral infection. The research, led by Dr. Ella H. Sklan of TAU's Sackler School of Medicine, was published online on May 29, 2019 in the Journal of Virology. It may one day lead to the development of a treatment for the Zika virus and other infections. The article is titled “A CRISPR Activation Screen Identifies Genes Protecting from Zika Virus Infection.” The study was based on a modification of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique. CRISPR-Cas9 is a naturally occurring bacterial genome editing system that has been adapted to gene editing in mammalian cells. The system is based on the bacterial enzyme Cas9, which can locate and modify specific locations along the human genome. A modification of this system, known as CRISPR activation, is accomplished by genetically changing Cas9 in a way that enables the expression of specific genes in their original DNA locations. "CRISPR activation can be used to identify genes protecting against viral infection," Dr. Sklan says. "We used this adapted system to activate every gene in the genome in cultured cells. We then infected the cells with the Zika virus. While most cells die following the infection, some survived due to the over-expression of some protective genes. We then used next-generation sequencing and bioinformatic analysis to identify a number of genes that enabled survival, focusing on one of these genes called IFI6.
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