You may have noticed that CRISPR and the two scientists at the helm of CRISPR-Cas9 have been making headlines in the last few days. And there are many reasons for this. Firstly, scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Chemistry Prize. This is the first time two women have won a Nobel Prize for science, which makes this pretty big news. The award has helped shed light on the amazing things happening in the chemistry and technology space at the moment. And, most importantly, everyone is now asking two critical questions: What is CRISPR technology? And, how will it affect our world? We've done our best to clarify these questions below...
What you need to know about the CRISPR technology system
What is the CRISPR system?
Before we delve into the deeper aspects of CRISPR and CRIPSR-Cas9, we need to do some basic explaining. The term CRISPR stands for 'clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats'. It sounds like a mouthful, but it really just refers to a particular region of DNA that allows for the building blocks of DNA to be repeated. The revolutionary CRISPR technology is a powerful tool that can be used to edit genomes, thereby altering DNA sequences and modifying gene function.
The system was originally identified and adapted by studying the natural defence mechanism of bacteria and archaea (organisms known as prokaryotes). These organisms naturally developed DNA repeats to ward off attacks from viruses. Scientists noticed that these repeating clusters bracketed DNA that came from viruses that had attacked the bacteria before. And this changed everything. It meant that the CRISPR-Cas9 protein could be used to cut strands of DNA and alter an organism's genetic material. Imagine the impact this could have.
What is genetic editing?
This is crucial, and the two scientists mentioned above were honoured for their participation in developing a revolutionary method of genome editing. They refer to it as genetic scissors. The technology used to cut and alter genomes has been around for many years, but Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have developed a simpler, easier, more precise and more effective way of doing it. In one of their papers, the scientists demonstrated that unique attributes of the ancient immune system found in bacteria and archaea could be retooled to edit DNA. The Nobel committee claimed this had the potential to 'rewrite the code of life'. A bold statement to make.
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What does this mean for the future?
As mentioned above, we're already familiar with genetic editing in one form or another. We have dogs bred from wild wolves whose genes were altered to encourage domesticity. And we eat fruit with hardly any seeds as a result of selecting and cutting specific genes. But, these processes were time-consuming, expensive and hugely labour-intensive. The remarkable thing about the developments in CRISPR technology is that it makes the process of genetic editing that much simpler and easier to apply to a multitude of organisms.
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In theory, this technology could be used to create new methods of plant breeding to create stronger crops. In a world with changing climates, growing poverty and an increasing population, this could have a huge impact in how we grow and sustain our food. In terms of health and medical opportunities, there are myriad ways CRISPR could affect change and alter our world. For example, the technology could be used to develop treatments for DNA-related diseases like sickle cell disease, as well as genetic diseases like Huntington's. Imagine if we could predetermine a person's genetic health so that no one need suffer from hereditary conditions. As controversial as this process could be, the impact it will have on our world is undeniable.