The Human Genome Project brought the concept of gene mapping and editing to the forefront of the public psyche. Since then, it has exerted a powerful pull on both scientists and laypeople alike, and it wouldn’t be where it is today without CRISPR gene editing.
CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” which are a family of DNA sequences that form a critical element in bacterial defense system. Today they are used to identify target bits of DNA and modify them, or even move them from one organism or species to another.
While countless scientists have contributed to this technology, there are a few that really stand out. Let’s take a look at CRISPR’s pioneers and their accomplishments.
University of California, Berkeley-based Jennifer Doudna was the first to propose that the CRISPR immunity mechanism could be used to edit DNA sequences and fix innumerable genetic problems across species. She, in tandem with her co-inventor of the CRISPR gene-editing technology, won the Nobel Prize for her discovery in 2020.
In addition to winning the Nobel along with Doudna, Carpentier and her team enhanced the understanding of how the CRISPR process work by showing that multiple types of RNA are involved in the process.
Mojica was the first researcher to refer to this gene-editing technology as CRISPR. He was also the first to recognize that what at first appeared to be different repeating sequences were actually members of a class of related DNA sequences, all functioning pieces of an adaptive immune system.
While studying the bacteria Streptococcus thermophilus, Bolotin and his team recognized new genes encoding for a large protein related to nuclease function (the operation of enzymes responsible for breaking nucleotide chains in genetic molecules into smaller units). They also discovered common gene sequences in bacteria and viruses responsible for genetic target recognition.
Studying bacteriophage attacks on S. thermophilus, Barrangou’s group discovered that bacteria naturally integrate stretches of phage DNA into their own genetic sequences to provide adaptive immunity. This is called “acquired resistance” and is critical to bacterial defense mechanisms and CRISPR technology as a whole.
Luciano Marraffini and Erik Sontheimer
These pathfinders effectively demonstrated that CRISPR sequences target the DNA molecule. Previous to their discovery, scientists had widely believed CRISPR sequences to be related to RNAi mechanisms silencing mechanisms. They proposed therefore that non-bacterial systems could benefit greatly from the application of the technology.
Before Zhang, CRISPR research was largely devoted to bacterial cells. He pioneered the cross-application of gene editing tools to eukaryotic life, making it accessible to other species, including humans.
Until Šikšnys began his work, the understanding of CRISPR was limited to gene editing within a bacterium. He showed that it could in fact be used to move genetic information between bacteria. Although he was one of the first to show how CRISPR worked, though, his accomplishments were largely overshadowed by Doudna’s.
Liu’s contribution to CRISPR gene editing was huge in showing that base editing enzymes could target and modify DNA at the precise location of a base, rather than having to break the DNA. This enables medical researchers to address diseases resulting from point mutations.
Esvelt helped to promulgate the idea of a gene drive as a genome engineering tool. A gene drive is a mechanism by which to propagate a genetic change through populations far faster than natural inheritance, helping bestow adaptive traits that are developed and applied through CRISPR gene editing.
Again, this is but a shortlist of the many brilliant people who have contributed to the field. However, it does contain the brightest stars in the bunch, giving you a solid foundation of the history of CRISPR technology today.