CRISPR: Gene Editing Tools Launch Biotech Revolution

MIT molecular biologist Feng Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience, transformed the field of biotechnology in 2013 when he first adapted the CRISPR bacterial genome editing system to edit DNA in human cells. Since then, an impressive array of individuals across an equally impressive collection of labs, departments, and centers at MIT have produced a toolbox of CRISPR-based enzymes to measure, improve, and repair cellular functions.

Cancer biologists have used CRISPR to screen for new and improved chemotherapeutics. Neuroscientists have used CRISPR to discover why certain genes may protect brain cells from degeneration. Molecular biologists have engineered CRISPR tools to detect viruses and destroy microbial pathogens. The list goes on and on.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is not actually a single entity but shorthand for a set of bacterial systems. Since Zhang began his work using CRISPR to engineer eukaryotic cells, CRISPR-based tools have entered clinical trials for a host of devastating diseases; become a rapid diagnostic platform for tumors, pathogens, and viruses (including Covid-19); and enabled scientists worldwide to make rapid discoveries in basic biological and genetic research.

The MIT Campaign for a Better World catalyzed the expansion of CRISPR applications by supporting cutting-edge research across the board. CRISPR can now be turned on and off with light, providing unprecedented control over when and where it cuts DNA; it can even be reprogrammed by synthetic biologists and computer scientists into a new form of memory storage.

It’s impossible to predict what discoveries CRISPR will next make possible, but the rate and diversity of CRISPR applications continue to accelerate the potential to improve our world.

Explore how much progress has already been made.

January 2013
Researchers develop a new technique for precisely altering the genomes of living cells by adding or deleting genes using CRISPR, a modified set of bacterial proteins.

July 2013
Scientists create a computer model to identify which regions of a gene are most effectively targeted by CRISPR and impose the least risk of off-target DNA damage.

December 2013
Scientists show that CRISPR can be programmed to target nearly every known gene, enabling large-scale studies of gene function in health and disease.

March 2014
First use of CRISPR gene therapy in an animal model succeeds in reversing a genetic liver disorder in mice.

August 2014
CRISPR allows scientists to more rapidly study the role of mutations in tumor development.

July 2015
CRISPR is used as a tool to understand how cellular respiration supports the growth of cancerous cells.

September 2015
Scientists identify completely new CRISPR systems from different organisms, expanding a CRISPR toolbox for gene editing.

January 2016
Use of CRISPR tool reveals unexpected gene regulatory regions in DNA.

April 2017
Scientists adapt a CRISPR protein that targets RNA as a rapid, inexpensive, highly sensitive diagnostic tool. They call it SHERLOCK (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing).

May 2017
Researchers use CRISPR genome editing to precisely control the activity of bacteria with light, adding a new way by which to manage bacterial production of materials such as insulin and diagnostic sensors.

October 2017
Researchers engineer CRISPR to edit RNA, rather than DNA, in human cells, offering the potential to treat diseases without permanently affecting the genome.

February 2018
Researchers develop a new method to restore gene activity and apply it to repair the disease gene associated with Fragile X syndrome, the most frequent cause of intellectual disability in males.

May 2018
With CRISPR, scientists change the Alzheimer’s high-risk gene variant APOE4 into a low-risk form, thereby reducing the accumulation of Alzheimer’s plaque proteins in a cellular model.

April 2019
Researchers develop a CRISPR-based, gene-drive system that provides fail-safe controls for genetic engineering of certain populations. This work could provide a method for humanely controlling pests and parasites.

June 2019
Using the CRISPR gene editing system, researchers engineer monkeys to express a gene mutation linked to autism spectrum disorders in humans. The work holds promise for modeling better treatment options for neurodevelopmental disorders.

January 2020
By using CRISPR to efficiently mutate thousands of genes in parallel, researchers discover a new gene family that can protect brain cells from degeneration in models of Huntington’s disease.

April 2020
A diagnostic platform that combines microfluidics with the CRISPR-based detection technology SHERLOCK can simultaneously detect thousands of viruses. In May, this tool is used to create a rapid and sensitive visual readout for diagnosing Covid-19 from human samples.

January 2021
Using CRISPR technology, researchers track the lineage of individual cancer cells as they proliferate and metastasize in real time.

June 2021
Researchers discover a new mechanism for natural gene repair that, when combined with CRISPR cutting of mutant genes, paves the way for safer, more efficient gene therapies.

*Work carried out by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; the MIT departments of biology, biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, chemical engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science; the MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science; the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research; the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; the MIT Media Lab; and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

This article was originally published in July 2021.

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