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  • Writer's pictureShreya Sriram

What is CRISPR?

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Researchers are currently using CRISPR, a low-cost gene editing tool, in many fields of

science to transform the world that we live in. CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly

Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, allows for specific changes to be made to DNA. This can

potentially be useful in fixing genetic defects and in treating diseases. CRISPR was first

discovered in 1987 when Cas9 enzymes were detected in bacterial DNA. It was later found out

that CRISPR sequences produce the Cas9 enzymes, which cut up viruses, therefore making

them harmless. As a result, researchers began to imitate this bacterial method of cutting DNA by

developing their own CRISPR tool in 2012. Since then, CRISPR has had many applications; for

instance, it has been used to correct genetic defects in animals, fight viruses, and sterilize

mosquitoes. Currently, researchers are making use of CRISPR to fight many diseases, including

AIDS, cancer, heart diseases, and even COVID-19.


There are many advantages to using CRISPR technology for gene editing. Not only is it

low-priced, but it is also very simple to use, unlike other gene editing tools. For example,

CRISPR does not need to be paired with separate cleaving enzymes (like other tools) since

CRISPR can already cut DNA. Additionally, CRISPR is capable of targeting many genes at

once, which significantly reduces the process of genetic engineering by years. Further setting it

apart from other genome editing techniques, CRISPR is not species specific. This allows it to be

used on nearly every type of species, including those that were previously resistant to genetic

engineering.


CRISPR gene editing can also be applied to a variety of fields within biology, including

agriculture and medicine. Agriculturally, CRISPR can aid in the engineering of new plants, such

as grains, roots, and fruits. For example, it can be used to attain desired traits in yield, plant

architecture, plant aesthetics, and disease tolerance. In fact, CRISPR has been used successfully

to alter the DNA of rice. The team of Ying Wang from Syngenta Biotechnology China was able

to use CRISPR to improve traits in rice that would result in higher yield, such as dense and erect

panicles and reduced plant height. Medically, CRISPR can potentially help in the creation of

transgenic (genetically altered) animals, which can be used for organ transplants to humans.

CRISPR is also being researched for use in gene therapy, which is the insertion of normal genes

into the cells of people with genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and Tay Sachs

disease. Furthermore, CRISPR is being researched to help treat cancer, to engineer stronger

bones in humans, and to engineer babies with specific and desired traits, including those with

genes resistant to certain genetic defects (designer babies).


While there are clearly many benefits to using CRISPR technology, it is also important to

understand and acknowledge its disadvantages. For example, many believe that it is unethical to

create designer babies in which genes for human traits (such as eyes, height, and intelligence) are

altered. Additionally, many researchers believe that using CRISPR technology to alter DNA

comes with a safety concern. This is because further knowledge about how CRISPR works is

needed, as current knowledge is very limited. Using CRISPR with limited knowledge can cause

unintended consequences to occur: changes made in one part of DNA can cause adverse changes

elsewhere. In fact, many are worried about current experiments that are using CRISPR to alter

genes in order to create favorable traits in crops and livestock, due to unforeseen consequences

this can have on the environment. This could potentially be a threat to biological diversity.

Furthermore, utilizing CRISPR to alter DNA in human patients can cause unexpected health

problems elsewhere. In addition to the unintentional misuse of CRISPR, the possibility of the

deliberate exploitation of CRISPR technology towards one’s own advantage has raised many

concerns.


Clearly, CRISPR has much potential to drastically change the world in countless

ways. As we explore what the new normal means to us, the promise of CRISPR is

hard to ignore. While CRISPR promises successful treatments of many diseases (including

COVID-19) and improvements of traits in crops and livestock, its unintended and unethical

consequences cannot go overlooked. Increased research will give scientists more answers to the

full capability of CRISPR technology and its possible effects. Only this will inform how

CRISPR can shape the course of human history, one gene at a time.


Shreya Sriram is a 1st Year student at the University of Virginia.


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