Home » News » CRISPR-Breakthrough discovery by accident

Jennifer Doudna received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize for her work using CRISPR to edit DNA. PC: Cailey Cotner

It was only in 2012 that Doudna, Charpentier and their colleagues revealed the first demonstration of CRISPR. “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” — CRISPR for short. They designed molecules that could enter a microbe and precisely cut its DNA at a location of choice. In January 2013, the scientists went one step further and cut out a particular piece of DNA in human cells and replaced it with another one. MIT Technology Review described this technique as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century”.

Doudna and colleagues were actually interested in looking at a system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses. As a part of this study, they discovered CRISPR, which went on to shape up into a powerful technology. They noticed that the system bacteria uses to shut down viruses had a strange way of targeting specific sections of viral DNA and this system could snip out any section of DNA. Moreover, if accompanied by other coding material, this process could also replace one section of DNA with a new section of DNA. Microbes have been using these naturally found CRISPR molecules to edit their own DNA for millions of years.

Breakthrough Prize life science laureates Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna arrive at the 2nd Annual Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center on Sunday, November 9, 2014 in Mountain View, California. PC: Peter Barreras/Invision/AP

“We’ve had gene-editing technology for decades, but now we’re basically able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes,” says Doudna, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. “All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers.”

In the hands of genetic engineers, having an accurate way to edit genomes composed of millions of letters is incredibly exciting. “It’s really going to just empower us to have more creativity … to get into the sandbox and have more control over what you build,” says Dustin Rubinstein, the head of a lab working with CRISPR.

The two scientists realized the potential applications for the system they were studying and then conducted experiments to show how it worked, which required both flashes of insight and a great deal of expertise. Yet still, “it’s serendipitous work — there’s an element of luck involved,” says Doudna. 

This technique could be a revolutionary finding transforming everything from health to energy. This discovery as quoted by Doudana and colleagues could the most extraordinary unplanned discovery of the recent times. CRISPR is already attracting the pharmaceutical industry, even though the pharma companies are generally slow to act on new scientific advances. Pharma giant, Novartis announced that it would be using Doudna’s CRISPR technology for its research into cancer treatments by planning to edit the genes of immune cells so that they can act and attack on the tumour cells.

Apart from a ground breaking discovery, Doudna highlights that this discovery shows the the importance of funding basic research, “as that is the sort of work that can advance knowledge that the unexpectedly leading to a transformative practical discovery”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.