If only we could award Nobel Prizes to bacteria, this year’s prize in Chemistry would have gone to them. But since these microorganisms do not have hands to accept the award or bank accounts to put money in, the winners went to humans. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna wrote in a 2012 paper that the adaptive immune systems of prokaryotes, also known as CRISPR, could be used to “rewrite the code of life”. And that right now, opened up even more doors for the genetic engineering community.
Scientists have known about “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” or CRISPR for several decades. At first, it was simply an observation that these interesting sections of DNA existed in bacteria and archaea. In 2005, researchers proposed the theory that they were a sort of ancient immune system, used to “remember” and fight off viral attacks. Charpentier and Doudna, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to create a precise gene editing tool.
Why CRISPR Is Different
In real estate, they say that location is everything. The same can be said when it comes to messing around with DNA. We’ve been able to cut and paste genes and sections of DNA, but where those genes went in the genome was sort of a crap shoot. This lack of precision made results unpredictable. With CRISPR, because the gene is guided to a specific section of DNA using a guiding RNA and the Cas9 protein, scientists can now add, remove, and edit with more precision than ever.
Potential and Ethical Concerns
With any new discovery, the potential to do both good and serious harm arises. CRISPR has the ability to, literally, snip out genetic mutations and give someone born with a deadly condition a chance at a better life. But we haven’t fully explored our own genomes, despite mapping it out. This was most evident in the 2018 incident when a Chinese researcher used CRISPR to make two twin girls immune to HIV. This might seem like a good idea, but later on, research showed that snipping out the very protein that gave the girls immunity might have also shortened their lifespan.
The Future Is CRISPR
As scientists and governments continue to hammer out the ethics of how to use CRISPR, one thing is for sure - this technology is here to stay. For now, we can celebrate the innovative minds of two new Nobel-prize winning scientists! We hope our CRISPR necklace will inspire others to think outside the box and to always look at old concepts and ideas in a new light. Since the holiday seasons are closing in on us, hurry and buy one today for yourself or for a friend. Both the gold-plated and silver version would make the perfect gift for geneticists, bacteriologists, microbiologists, and starry-eyed future Nobel-prize winners.
written by Science with Evie