How Yogurt Revolutionized Molecular Biology

CRISPR technology revolutionized modern science by its ability to edit DNA. One thing associated with CRISPR is that it enables the creation of GMO’s. The notorious acronym, short for “genetically modified organism”, has gotten a bad rap, especially in the agricultural industry. It has also caused some major controversy when a scientist used the technology to modify a human. We generally don’t refer to ourselves as organisms but yes, we in theory could be a GMO as well. It’s obvious why toying with nature this way is shunned. However, as with any powerful technology, the good things it brings triumphs over the bad – it’s all in how the technology is used. 

Editing DNA seems like an offshoot of the movie Frankenstein. This couldn’t be more wrong. CRISPR is a natural phenomenon occurring in bacteria as part of their adaptive immunity. It wasn’t the creation of some mad scientist; in fact, it was discovered in a much less scary setting: the yogurt industry. To research ways to protect yogurt bacteria from viruses, Eugene Koonin unintentionally stumbled upon CRISPR before it was popularized. He noticed that bacteria contained “spacer DNA” in the CRISPR region of its genome. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Basically, this region repeats itself and the repeats are spaced out within the region. What’s interesting is that the spacer DNA is nicely situated between these repeats and provide the bacteria with an immune memory of the viruses it has encountered. No mad scientist could create this technology, but the genius of nature could. Drawing inspiration from this natural invention, Nobel laureates, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, made CRISPR what it is today.

Nature Invents, Humans Discover

Tweaking CRISPR into a useful tool involved discovering the system as it occurs in nature and refining it for the lab. One application of the tool is in the creation of GMOs in the agricultural industry. Traditionally, breeding crops involved selecting for desirable traits – think how a once inedible teosinte crop evolved into the corn we know today. In a way, this resembles creating a GMO, only that the natural reproductive process does the modifying with the help of humans doing the artificial selection. Our ancestors have done this long before we knew what a gene was, and it worked to create most of the produce section. In the modern day, corporate agriculture has streamlined this process through the creation of GMOs. However, it’s not as simple as using CRISPR and hoping for the best – a lot of preliminary research is done first. Any living thing can be considered a biological machine that has been refined through natural and artificial selection. Basic research boils down to understanding the machine of interest and this often involves tinkering with genes using CRISPR technology. To understand how a machine works, it is a common practice to break a part of it and see what happens. CRISPR has made it much easier to do this as we can now target any gene and render it off, on, or somewhere in between. This process modifies the genes by introducing mutations so in a way, creating GMO’s fuels basic research. 

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