Untranslated Elements: CRISPR

My last couple posts have become longer than I expected. I’m going to break the pattern this week. I’m starting a recurring series of posts containing brief thoughts, centred on a single topic in the molecular biosciences. These posts will be unorganized, full of sarcasm, conjecture, and the occasional opinion. I’m calling it: Untranslated Elements.

Today, CRISPR technologies.


For a brief background, CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene editing technology developed from a bacterial system for viral immunity. The CRISPR/Cas9 system is taking molecular biology by storm because of the low cost, ease of use, and unprecedented ease at which it allows us to play God with the genetic code, even our own.

Untranslated Elements:

  1. CRISPR = Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. This is why you don’t let academics name things. I’ll forgive it under one condition: name an associated protein KRUNCH.
  2. Despite what they’ve told you, CRISPR can not write a top-40 pop song, repair a broken marriage, or bring peace to the Middle East.
  3. Remember how siRNA used to be the solution to every problem in medicine? That’s why I restrain my enthusiasm for CRISPR, despite watching closely.
  4. CRISPR is a powerful technology, but like any technology it’s no substitute for good experimental design. Just because you have the best technology available doesn’t excuse you from using the appropriate controls.
  5. The serendipity of scientific discovery rears its head once again. This enormously promising technology came from an unexpected place – yogourt.
  6. The CRISPR discovery repeats a theme I come back to all the time: The microbial world is more complex than we give it credit for. If a problem exists, many times bacteria have already solved it. The challenge is noticing when we come across it and using it to our advantage.
  7. All the bullshit over CRISPR patent priority is totally not cool.
  8. We’ve been able to edit genes for decades, CRISPR just makes it fast and easy. How have we waited this long to have a public conversation about ethics?

Whether you’re on the bandwagon, or sniping at it from the sidelines like me, this technology will change the way we do molecular biology. Maybe even how we think about ourselves. I sure hope we’re ready.

7 thoughts on “Untranslated Elements: CRISPR

  1. Do you reckon the antiviral function of crispr could be adapted for use in human cells against, say, HIV? Is that a thing people are working on?

    1. I can almost guarantee someone’s working on it. It’s compelling to think you could program a sequence to target and break down hiv-specific genes and excise them from immune cells. And CRISPR could fill some of the unmet need there, but the problem is total eradication, how do you take the virus out of every cell in the body? Any gene editing in those cells will have some amount of side effect making it too hard to use for eradication. Especially when HAART has turned HIV to a chronic treatable condition (in the first world), the risk of something so invasive just wouldn’t be worth it. I’d call that application a pipe dream, but making single-gene knockout organisms within 6 months was a pipe dream just 4 years ago, so.

      1. But say if you made some iPSCs from a patient and turned them into T-cells, adding in the CRISPR immunity. Inject them back into HIV+ person and eventually HIV could kill off all the CRISPR-/- T cells leaving only the CRISPR+/+ cells (i.e., HIV immune) behind, which would continue to function like regular T cells for all intents and purposes.

      2. Maybe. For the circulating cells this might be possible, but the bigger challenge is the virus hanging out in reservoir cells like dendritic cells. How to modify those without negative effects is a gigantic challenge.

        Disclaimer: not an immunologist, virologist, or doctor.

  2. I just noticed this post and I really enjoyed your thoughts. There was the summit a couple of weeks ago about the ethics of human gene editing techniques. I was thinking about writing about that. Any thoughts?

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