"Making your genes CRISPR"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 03 October 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

To give audiences a link between the new planetarium show "Cell, Cell, Cell" and COSI's Life Exhibit, I worked with Dave Buker and the Tech Studio team to produce a short video on CRISPR.

That's right: CRISPR.

I'm not in charge of naming things in science, unfortunately. It's short for "Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", which isn't very helpful either, but check this out. When viruses attack a bacteria, that virus inserts itself into the DNA of the host. Usually that means Game Over, but some varieties of bacteria have evolved a clever defense mechanism. They send a special complex molecule scanning down the path of their DNA, looking for the virus-laden spot. Once there, another molecule comes in and snip-snips the virus out. The DNA stitches itself together, and there you go: healthy bacteria.

Sounds nifty, but what's the big deal? The big deal is that we've been able to replicate and control this process in the lab. Which means we can go in and selectively edit out parts of a genome. And with another trick we can insert new DNA in those snipped-out parts.

CRISPR is cheekily known as a "word processor for DNA", and while folks are excitedly hyping up the potentially unlimited possibilities, in the short term the technology will be used for almost entirely therapeutic reasons, like for treating cancer and gene-related diseases. Even if that's all we got from the technique, that's a huge advance.

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).