Written for the University of Michigan’s One Cool Thing mobile app (07/28/15)

Edit genomes with unprecedented precision

With a name like CRISPR, a vision of a futuristic toaster may come to mind, but its actual purpose couldn’t be any stranger. In short, CRISPR is a new genome editing tool that comes from a naturally occurring defense mechanism most commonly associated with the bacteria that causes strep throat.

As Gizmodo reports, in Streptococcus pyogenes the CRISPR acts as a kind of shield around the bacteria, keeping a memory bank composed of harmful virus genetics. As it is filled with virus DNA, CRISPR recognizes the harmful intruders and signals a CRISPR associated protein (or Cas) to cut through the virus. As you can imagine, this ability to precisely cut through DNA has enabled scientists to alter genomes as they never could before. And while they’re still far from being a viable human genome editing tool, there have still been a number of lab-based achievements. Monkeys with targeted mutations, successful defending against HIV infection in human cells, drastic improvements to the method by which we alter mice for biomedical research, and the realization that this editing tool can be used on any organism on the planet — all make CRISPR an exciting prospect.

In the future, CRISPR could prove to be the answer for a myriad of genetic diseases as well as major player in ecology and conservation. At the same time as it is helping some rid themselves of a genetic disorder, CRISPR could potentially be used to help eradicate mosquitoes spreading malaria and halt the march of invasive plant species. CRISPR, and the more exact genome editing that it enables, could herald a bright future for the world and all of its creatures.