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By Olivia Zhu

In a lecture to an overflowing auditorium in the Bryan Research Building on March 27th, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, unraveled her story of research into CRISPRs, or “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Dr. Doudna specializes in RNA; she started her project on CRISPRs seven years ago, when CRISPRs were denounced as no more than junk.

The CRISPR method includes a modifiable RNA sequence whose function is to recognize target sequences on DNA. The RNA also includes a target sequence that induces cleavage by the associated protein, CAS9. CAS9 introduces double-stranded breaks and represents an exciting improvement over the previous, less efficient collection of nine proteins used to cleave DNA; the breaks make room for insertion of new genes. The CRISPR-CAS9 system has inserted genes into a wide range of organisms, including bacteria, yeast, nematode worms, fruit flies, plants, fish, mice, and even human cells.

Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

While researchers are actively investigating the possibility of using CRISPR technology to alter genes, Doudna said the mechanism behind CRISPR gene editing remains unclear. For example, it seems extraordinary that the CRISPR-CAS9 system can locate and unwind specific DNA sequences in human cells, as the DNA there is highly condensed around histones and methylated.

Doudna’s lab is working to understand the details of the CRISPR process. One current hypothesis includes the idea that there is a spring mechanism that allows the CAS9 protein to effectively cleave DNA strands.

Nevertheless, CRISPR technology has been instrumental in allowing more precise and efficient genetic modification. What we once considered junk has spurred substantial advances across various fields of science.