What is CRISPR?
You’ve seen the word and probably heard there’s a Noble Prize involved, but what is CRISPR?
It’s Nature at its cleverest. CRISPR is a mechanism in bacteria — a technique that the tiny, single-celled organisms evolved to protect themselves from viruses. A microbiologist discovered the mechanism, and genome engineers have turned it into a gene-editing tool.
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats
Who named it? Francis Mojica is the molecular biologist who discovered the short repetitive sequences and gave them the marbles-in-your-mouth acronym CRISPR. The name makes sense, though. Some sequences cluster together and repeat at somewhat regular intervals throughout a genome.
They also have a curious kind of “spelling.” The short sequences are palindromes; they read the same backward and forwards. Mojica suspected the repeats must have important functions. But what exactly? After years of research, in 2005, he published his discovery:
“This is an immune system. This is an adaptive immune system!”
Mojica anticipated his research would spark biotech innovations, and that’s the contribution genome engineers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier made. They reprogrammed the CRISPR mechanism in bacteria to use as a gene-editing tool.
CRISPR and the Nobel Prize! Jennifer and Emmanuelle shared the 2020 Noble Prize in Chemistry for their “co-development of a method for genome editing.” You can listen to Jennifer’s Nobel Lecture, “The Chemistry of CRISPR: Editing the Code of Life,” and read an explanation of the “genetic scissors” on the Nobel website.
What does CRISPR look like? The black and white photos (below) are near-atomic resolution snapshots. The fuzzy image of tiny gray shapes on the left shows thousands of CRISPR molecules seen through a cryo-electron microscope.
The grid of blobs on the right shows hundreds of thousands of particles combined into 2D shapes. To see a 3D model based on the snapshot, watch a full-color animation that helps scientists understand the step-by-step process that builds the structure of CRISPR.