At a Glance – CRISPR and your DNA

Transforming Biology Through Flexible Gene Editing

CRISPR stands for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. In basic terms, CRISPR refers to repeated DNA sequences, with unique sequences in between the repetitions. The first discovery of CRISPR happened at Osaka University in the 1980s, where it was found that the DNA sequences were in fact naturally occurring in a wide range of bacteria. The clustered repeats actually make up part of bacterial immune systems, protecting against viruses. The other part of the immune system is a set of enzymes called ‘Cas’ (CRISPR associated proteins), which slice away invading viruses. So why is there so much buzz around CRISPR, and what can scientists do with it?

Cas enzymes strip away viruses, and CRISPR identifies them. CRISPR is, therefore, currently the best tool that scientists have for editing genes. It allows biologists to cut and paste DNA sequences into genomes, repairing and enhancing genes. CRISPR also saves on resources, as it can alter a number of different genes at once. At the moment, most science experiments are limited to a number of well-tested animals like mice, rats and fruit flies. However, with CRISPR, gene editing can theoretically be used to edit the genome of any animal at all – even humans.

CRISPR and Cas enzymes could transform biology through accurate, flexible gene editing. The most obvious use is in healthcare, in identifying and repairing faulty human genes. However, there are far more applications for CRISPR outside of medical facilities. For example, it could be used in ecology, to kill off malaria-spreading mosquitoes for example. It could also help to conserve the environment by destroying harmful weeds. Even though human gene editing using CRISPR is some way off, the new technique will, without doubt, completely change the way that scientists work with DNA.

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