Viewpoint: CRISPR can do more than just gene editing in agriculture and biomedicine

crispr earth
Credit: Bryce Durbin

Thanks to the 2020 chemistry Nobel prize, Crispr–Cas systems will forever be associated with gene editing. But it’s worth mentioning that the system is also finding uses elsewhere, because at its heart is a DNA detector: an RNA guide that can be designed to hunt specific targets.

Coronavirus has become one of those targets. Identifying patients infected with Sars-CoV-2 is a bottleneck in many countries but it is central to strategies for containing and controlling the spread of the virus. Crispr-based nucleic acid detection methods have been explored within numerous diagnostic set-ups for a variety of infectious diseases, not just Sars-CoV-2. The field is still very much in its infancy but analytical tools that use Crispr already look set to be sensitive, specific, affordable, portable and easy to reconfigure for different genetic sequences.

Another use of a Crispr–Cas system I’ve seen recently came from Douglas Clark’s team at the University of California, Berkeley in the US. Nature often organises enzymes in such a way as to channel reaction intermediates from one active site to another. These cascades boost reaction yields compared with analogous diffusional mixtures of molecules but mimicking how nature combines enzymes is tricky. Clark’s team has used a Crispr–Cas-based method to assemble a cascade containing five enzymes on a DNA strand by taking advance of how easy it is to customise what Cas binds to.1 They say the modular system is simple to programme and could work for virtually limitless types of enzymes.

These are just two examples. Crispr was already topping the science barometer but I’m intrigued to see how it evolves as a platform technology now that is has a Nobel endorsement.

Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.

However, as the Crispr-based toolbox expands and becomes embedded within the scientific status quo there is a risk that originality and creativity get knocked down by the Crispr bandwagon. There may well be better gene-editing tools out there still waiting to be discovered, but now the motivation to find them is arguably much less. And I worry that labs rushing to adopt Crispr-based techniques encourages conformity rather than risk-taking.

Of course, it’s a testament to Crispr’s incredible potential that it carries such a price. But when Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna teamed up to repurpose an ancient bacterial immune system they certainly weren’t following the herd. It’s important for humanity that scientific research maintains a delicate balance between being exploiting a good idea and coming up with news ones.

d cc ff hires
The process developed by Clark’s team uses a catalytically inactive variant of Cas9 nuclease from Streptococcus pyogenes, which does not digest DNA. The Cas9 nuclease guides each enzyme to a particular location on the DNA template in a modular fashion. Credit: Douglas Clark/University of California Berkeley

Jennifer Newton joined the Royal Society of Chemistry in September 2008, collecting over 4 years of experience in journals publishing, before moving to Chemistry World in April of 2013. Find Jennifer on Twitter @FoggNewton

A version of this article was originally posted at Chemistry World and has been reposted here with permission. Chemistry World can be found on Twitter @ChemistryWorld

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
Video: Test everyone – Slovakia goes its own way to control COVID

Video: Test everyone – Slovakia goes its own way to control COVID

As Europe sees record coronavirus cases and deaths, Slovakia is testing its entire adult population. WSJ's Drew Hinshaw explains how ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend