It was standing room only in the Harvard Medical School auditorium last week, the atmosphere electric as an audience of hundreds hummed with anticipation — for a highly technical talk by a visiting scientist, Dr. Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley. Near the front sat the medical school’s dean, Dr. Jeffrey Flier.
“I don’t believe in my years at Harvard Medical School I’ve ever seen a crowd of this magnitude for a lecture of this kind,” he said.
“The draw is, this is one of the most exciting topics in the scene of biology today.”
That buzzworthy biology topic is a revolutionary new method to “edit” DNA that has spread to thousands of labs around the world just in the last couple of years.
Suddenly, it’s no longer purely science fiction that humankind will have the ability to tinker with its own gene pool. But should it?
Learn This Acronym: CRISPR
The hot new gene-editing tool is known by the acronym CRISPR, for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats.” It acts as a sort of molecular scissors that can be easily targeted to cut and modify specific genes.
CRISPR occurs naturally in bacteria, but scientists are now learning to harness its power to alter DNA for research across the board — cancer, HIV, brain disease — even to make better potatoes. Just this week, the journal Science published a paper on possibly using CRISPR to try to stop female mosquitoes from spreading deadly diseases.
CRISPR looks particularly promising for human diseases that hinge on just one gene, like sickle-cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. Someday, the hope is, CRISPR and gene-editing tools like it will let us cure what are now lifelong diseases by simply deleting and replacing a baby’s “broken” gene. Continue reading