If you were to ask a biologist what they though the most significant discovery of the past decade was, many of them would probably say CRISPR.
In fact, CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) has been in the news so much, both for the bitter patent dispute surrounding its discovery and for its potency in gene editing, that you’d probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of it.
But apart from its fame and its catchy name, what exactly is CRISPR and what does it do?
You might be surprised to learn that CRISPR is actually an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – a mouthful that basically means a very recognizable repeating DNA sequence.
In bacteria, these sequences act as a sort of primitive immune system, recognizing matching foreign viral DNA and chopping it up using an enzyme called Cas9.
CRISPR sequences were first discovered and documented in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2012 that researchers realized they could change the recognition sequence for Cas9, and essentially cut DNA at any location of their choosing. Natural DNA repair mechanisms can then be harnessed to repair the cut in the DNA, adding or mutating any portion into a designer DNA sequence.
“CRISPR technology is repackaging the biology of CRISPR-Cas systems in bacteria and turning into a technology, a tool,” says Barrangou, a biologist at North Carolina State University.
The implications of this are huge: CRISPR could be used to change any DNA sequences precisely and accurately. This includes curing genetic diseases in humans, making disease resistant crops, wiping out whole populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, just to name a few applications.
When Science Magazine named CRISPR its “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2015, they stated “it’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make it happen.”
Barrangou believes that CRISPR has been able to revolutionize, not just science and business, but society as a whole.
“It has had a ubiquitous impact on a very short timeline across many parts of consumers’ and patients’ lives.”