CRISPR - harnessing the power of Mother Nature #15
The revolutionary gene editing tool
September 2, 2021
Before we hop into the awesomeness of science, I want to tell about few updates:
Substack + the new website!
As much as I loved my self-coded website of Survivaltech.club, I decided to optimize for efficiency and scalability. So I built the new website with Webflow and moved the newsletter to Substack.
You can find the website at the same address as before
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Streamlining the newsletter
I decided to get rid of The Expedition and The Pioneers names that I had given to my deep dives and interview series, respectively. I felt that they created an additional layer of complexity. Simple is often better.
For the past two weeks, I attended European Forum Alpbach - conference in a small Austrian town, Alpbach. I met a fantastic bunch of smart people around the world who worked in various fields tackling social and environmental challenges.
I got frustrated from time to time due to the conference’s heavy focus on discussion instead of data and action. On the other hand, it reinforced my belief about the power of entrepreneurship and science in ensuring humanity’s survival.
During the conference, I attended a session where the panelists mentioned something I remembered having heard before - CRISPR.
I rushed home and started to watch the Human Nature -documentary on Netflix about this acronym. [I can highly recommend watching it!]
I recalled correctly - CRISPR is this revolutionary gene editing tool. I was instantly enchanted and started learning more about this topic.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats) is a programmable gene editing tool.
As the biologist Neville Sanjana explains in the YouTube video below, you can think of CRISPR as a pair of molecular scissors. They can make cuts in the DNA at a precise place based on the instructions that you have given to them. In this way, we can delete a gene and/or insert a new one.
CRISPR gives us the power to edit the genome of living organisms - including humans.
It has been touted as the scientific revolution of the 21st century for several reasons. Compared to earlier gene editing tools, CRISPR is precise, affordable, and simple.
How does CRISPR work?
The CRISPR technology comprises two elements:
- Cas9 -protein (Cas9)
Cas9 is the protein that will cut the DNA at a specific place. This is why you’ll see that CRISPR is referred to as CRISPR/Cas9, especially in scientific literature.
- Guide RNA (gRNA)
The Guide RNA is a piece of RNA (Ribonucleic Acid). You can think that RNA is like the GPS navigator in the system. The designed RNA is like the coordinates of the destination. With the help of RNA, the Cas9 protein can find the specific place where we want to cut the DNA.
If we wanted to insert a new gene into the DNA, this system would have three components: the new gene.
If you want to understand the fascinating mechanism of CRISPR, I can highly recommend watching the lecture by Prof. Jennifer Doudna.
Prof. Doudna got the Nobel Chemistry in 2020 together with Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier for the discovery of the CRISPR technology.
In this video, Prof. Doudna also explains how CRISPR was first found in bacterial immune systems. Many bacteria use, in fact, CRISPR to protect themselves against viral infections. I find this piece of information so fascinating. What a sophisticated system has nature developed for bacteria!
Applications of CRISPR for climate
CRISPR is what an economist would fancily call a general-purpose technology. It holds potential applications across domains as electricity and internet do.
While CRISPR holds enormous potential in biomedicine to cure genetic diseases and cancer, I came across powerful applications also for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.
Here are some of the intriguing ways to apply CRISPR technology in climate tech:
We are very likely to experience increasing levels of droughts, floods, and heatwaves, even if we could stop climate warming in the upcoming decades.
With CRISPR, we can design crops that are more resilient to these conditions and continue to feed our expanding population (we are now almost 8 billion people!).1
Here’s an intriguing review article on genome engineering rice, the crop that “ensures the calorie requirements of half of the world’s population”2
Biofuels offer an alternative renewable source of energy. An attractive way to produce these biofuels is with microorganisms. With CRISPR, their yield could be increased to enable large-scale production.3
In case you are interested to understand the applications of synthetic biology in general, I recommend reading the following article: “Is It Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation?”4
There is no article about genetic engineering and CRISPR without talking about their inherent risks. We need to proceed with caution and great care. That’s unquestionable.
Nevertheless, I see CRISPR and synthetic biology as powerful tools to solve climate change and biodiversity loss. We will need every possible leverage to save our humankind.
I hope you enjoyed learning about CRISPR! As always, I’d love to hear feedback and ideas from you. You can send them by replying to this newsletter or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Until next week!
1 Nidhi et al. (2021). Novel CRISPR-Cas Systems: An Updated Review of the Current Achievements, Applications, and Future Research Perspectives. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 22(7), 3327. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22073327
2 Biswal et al. (2019). CRISPR mediated genome engineering to develop climate smart rice: Challenges and opportunities. Seminars in Cell & Developmental Biology, 96, 100-106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.semcdb.2019.04.005
3 Shanmugam et al. (2020). Advanced CRISPR/Cas-based genome editing tools for microbial biofuels production: A review. Renewable Energy, 149, 1107-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.renene.2019.10.107
4 Piaggio et al. (2017). Is It Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 32(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2016.10.016