Bacteria

What Is CRISPR, And How Does It Work?

It's the most exciting breakthrough since we mapped the human genome, but the average person may not know anything about CRISPR. In essence, CRISPR is a technique that allows scientists to make precision edits to any DNA, whether bacterial or human. Scientists discovered the technique when studying a bacteria's immune system, which they gave the acronym CRISPR. (It stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.") When a virus attacks one of these bacteria, the CRISPR system captures a piece of the virus's DNA and slides it into a section of its own DNA, which lets the bacteria's virus-fighting machinery use it like a "wanted" poster to identify and destroy the virus it came from the next time it attacks.

Scientists are now able to take the CRISPR system's ability to cut, copy, and replace pieces of DNA and use it to their own ends, applying it to virtually any DNA they want to. The potential for this technology is huge: if scientists have the accuracy to replace just a few faulty genes, it might be possible to cure genetic disorders as serious as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease and as common as lactose intolerance and color-blindness.

Want to learn more? Listen to our conversation with Dr. Sam Sternberg, CRISPR expert and protein-RNA biochemist, on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 24, 2016