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The CRISPR Revolution

The hottest new area of scientific investigation, moving forward thanks to the work of UGA faculty and graduate students, is featured in the current issue of UGA Research magazine:

a recently developed gene-editing tool commonly known by the acronym CRISPR, which makes it possible to snip out and replace segments of DNA inside the cells of living organisms with extraordinary precision. The technology is only about three years old, but it’s both easier and cheaper than other gene editing techniques, and it is quickly taking the scientific world by storm.

So great is the promise of CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) that the journal Science named it the “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2015, noting, among other things, its potential applications in medicine. “It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make that happen,” said John Travis, Science’s managing news editor.

Armed with this unprecedented command over the code of life, scientists could, with the requisite knowledge, improve the vitality of crops in the face of drought and pests; eliminate viruses such as HIV from the genomes of infected individuals; or “silence” the genes that predispose humans to a myriad of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and mental illnesses.


CRISPR is a natural system that bacteria use to protect themselves from viruses. Researchers first uncovered the hallmarks of CRISPR in 2000, when a group of Spanish scientists noticed unusual sites in the genomes of bacteria, which contained multiple copies of a short repeated genetic sequence.

The sites were dubbed “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” or CRISPRs, and scientists found that the repeated sequences separated snippets of DNA captured from bacteriophages—viruses that attack and kill bacteria.

“Essentially, CRISPR is a kind of bacterial immune system, and the pieces of viral DNA scientists found in the bacteria were a record of past infections,” said Michael Terns, a Distinguished Research Professor in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. He and his colleague Rebecca Terns were among the first to describe some of the fundamental mechanisms involved in CRISPR immunity.

Congratulations to the Terns as this exciting field moves forward - and great story by our colleague, Jmes Hataway. One of the reasosn we're a reluctant to use the word 'breakthrough' when writing about scholarship and research is precisely because it is reserved for developments like this. Gene editing represents one of the most forward advances since the whole genome sequencing process was established, and that was not even 20 years ago. #ThinkAboutThat

Image: graphic via UGA Research Magazine


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