Nell Barrie - History of CRISPR

13 February 2016

Interview with

Nell Barrie, Science writer

Kat - The speed at which CRISPR has moved from the pages of dry academic journals to the headlines of newspapers - not to mention labs and biotech companies around the world - has been breathtaking. This month the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority granted a licence for scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London to start using the technique to modify early-stage human embryos - although these would not be allowed to grow past the stage of being a tiny ball of cells.

Although it might seem like the CRISPR story has come out of nowhere in the past year, the Naked Genetics podcast was on the case back in 2012, when University of California, Berkeley researcher Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was at Umea university in Sweden, published a paper in the journal Science entitled "A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity". Here's a clip from the podcast back in July 2012, where science writer Nell Barrie and I discuss the implications of their discovery.

Kat - I love this just because of the potential of the story, and this is researchers who've been looking at bacteria and looking at how bacteria use certain molecules like molecular scissors to snip up their DNA and glue it together, and it helps them develop different characteristics to help them survive.  But they've actually looked at these molecular scissors and found out how they work.  And they think that possibly, you could use this technology to make programmable scissors so you could cut up human DNA, animal DNA, and basically glue it back together in any kind of way you like.

Nell -   That's pretty cool.  I mean, I think it's kind of what I think of as genetic engineering.  I guess you think you'll just put together whichever bit of the DNA that you want, but actually, in reality, that's not really possible yet.  So I suppose this is taking us a little bit closer to real designer genetic tailoring or whatever you might like to call it.

Kat -   So I remember when I was in the lab - and this is some time ago so things may have changed - but if you wanted to do genetic engineering and stick different bits of DNA together, you had to look at the sequence and there were only certain sequences that you could cut using enzymes.  Things have probably moved on now, but I think there is some restriction in the sequences that you can cut and glue together.  So having a different set of technology could really be exciting.

Nell -   Yeah, and I guess that sort of eventual implications would be that you could be create these kind of designer organisms like maybe, bacteria that degrades nasty environmental toxins, or produce things that we need for drugs, or all kinds of exciting applications.  Because we know that bacteria and fungi have all these abilities and it's just about, could we harness them to do the things we want, I guess.

Kat -   Watch this space, I think because it is still very early days for that, but thank you very much.  That's Nell Barrie, Science Writer.

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