One of the hottest new biotechnologies is CRISPR. Short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”, CRISPR is a DNA-based system that allows the user to have unparalleled control and precision in genome editing. It’s been used to achieve astonishing feats, from removing the HIV virus integrated into the genome of a stem cell to direct gene-editing of an actual human zygote. A very new technology that’s only broken into mainstream use over the past few years, CRISPR applications are constantly being refined every day as new research, especially here at Stanford, helps increase our understanding of this system.
Andrew Fire, Professor of Pathology and Genetics at the School of Medicine, discovered that CRISPR not only responds to DNA, but also RNA. This theoretically increases the range of potential CRISPR applications to include modification of various types of RNA and defense against RNA-based viruses. Stanley Qi, a faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering, developed a technology known as CRISPRi that uses catalytically inactive CRISPR compounds to suppress genes instead of actually knocking them out. This technique induces temporary changes in a cell that can be used for short term measurements without any lasting effects.
Future applications of the CRISPR system might include eliminating chronic viral diseases (like HIV, as mentioned above), more effectively creating GMOs, and even modifying humans. Of course, all of these paths face a variety of scientific, legal, and ethical issues, but the potential is far-reaching and broad. CRISPR is an incredibly effective and flexible technology that we are understanding better by the day.
Image courtesy of McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT