Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, developers of CRISPR, the revolutionary genome editing technology, have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for chemistry. This technique, based on a defense mechanism in the immune system of bacteria, allows scientists to introduce genetic alterations in a wide variety of organisms in a very efficient and targeted manner.
CRISPR against global challenges
CRISPR is a technology that is based on a natural mechanism found in bacteria. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna developed this mechanism into a ‘search-and-replace’ editing tool for DNA. Scientists can design the tool to target a specific piece of DNA, and once CRISPR has found it, it makes small cuts. The snipped bits of DNA are then fixed by a natural repair machine all cells have. The repair can result in a small genetic change, a type of change that can also occur in nature.
The ease of use, and potential of CRISPR have led scientists across the world to adopt the technique in their quest to fight global challenges. From fighting disease to mitigating climate change, the responsible application of CRISPR could prove to be invaluable and enhance international welfare in a world that is rapidly changing. As research tool that enables fast and efficient genome editing, the impact of CRISPR on modern life sciences can hardly be overestimated.
VIB researchers also widely use this technology to help achieve the societal benefits they envision. While in the European Union the use of CRISPR in agriculture and food is everything but straight-forward because of regulatory constraints, scientists recognize the technology’s potential.
Combatting climate change
One of the challenges for which the application of CRISPR seems to be making serious headway is the alteration of crops to withstand – and perhaps even mitigate – climate change.
After all, the crops on which the majority of our food supply is based are sensitive to changes in temperature, drought, and other factors that are influenced by a changing climate. To guarantee our future food supply, crops that have been tailored to deal with those changes are essential.
Another way through which CRISPR can contribute to a climate-friendlier society is by making bio-based materials easier to process. For example, reducing the lignin content in poplars improves the ease with which the trees can be processed into paper with a lower carbon footprint, biofuels, and other bio-based materials.
Cancer and other diseases
CRIPSR is not only relevant for plants. A wide variety of human diseases – including cancer – could have found a new adversary in CRISPR. Heritable conditions are prime targets for the use of CRISPR technology. Diseases such as sickle cell anemia and Huntington’s disease have a known genetic basis. With this knowledge and CRISPR tools, researchers have been able to mitigate, or even cure, these conditions in cell lines and animal models.
In the war against cancer, CRIPSR can be implemented on several fronts. Research targeting genes responsible for tumor growth is ongoing, and CRISPR is also improving immunotherapy.
Viral infections are another problem area where CRISPR can be extremely useful. In the current pandemic, CRISPR-based technologies are being explored for the development of diagnostics and genetic vaccines.
Find out more in VIB’s brochure ‘CRISPR-Cas Genome Editing in Medicine'.
Congratulations, Prof. Charpentier & Prof. Doudna!
We asked VIB scientists who have worked with CRISPR how it has affected their research and career:
"The development of CRISPR/CAS systems as a molecular tool is a true game-changer for basic research and biotech. We are using it to generate specific mutants and engineer superior industrial yeasts and we are even developing new Cas-based technologies to improve specific metabolic pathways, while leaving other parts of a genome untouched."
- Prof. Kevin Verstrepen (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology)
"Genome editing has revolutionized the life sciences and it has an unprecedented potential for medicine, agriculture, and humanity. Recognition by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the genome editing technology developed by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna gives Europe the opportunity to rethink its stance on genome editing for a more sustainable, climate-resilient, and eco-friendly agriculture."
- Prof. Dirk Inzé (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology)
"I wouldn't have a position if not for CRISPR..."
- Dr. Thomas Jacobs (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology)
"CRISPR genome editing is the breakthrough technology of the last decades: it actually works as efficient as described in the first publications (a rarity in science!) and it offers a flexible and fast way to study gene function, with many more applications to come... No doubt this discovery is worth the Nobel Prize!"
- Prof. Jan Cools (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology)
"CRISPR has allowed us to precisely tune the activity of a protein involved in the lignin biosynthesis pathway in poplar, allowing the woody biomass to be processed more efficiently into fermentable sugars. We have achieved this by creating a frame shift mutation in one of the alleles of the corresponding gene, and a 3 bp deletion in the other allele, resulting in a protein with a small change in its amino acid sequence and a slightly lower activity."
- Prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology)