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What Crispr will enable humanity to do next

An explainer on the technology and its next decade.

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  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor

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Crispr's next decade
Image copyright: Photo-illustration by Quartz

Hi Quartz members,

On June 28, 2012, a team of researchers published a paper in the prestigious journal Science about the mechanism by which bacteria protect themselves from biological attacks, a kind of immune system. At the time, the discovery didn’t get much attention outside the field of molecular biology, one of its authors recalls to Stat News.

But that paper was the first to document Crispr, a gene editing enzyme that, once scientists realized they could harness it, opened up new realms of possible applications. Suddenly, gene editing processes that had previously been prohibitively slow or expensive became so easy a student could do it. Innovations in medicine, conservation, agriculture, and beyond came at an astounding rate.

Crispr’s innovations aren’t done yet. We’re just now starting to see some of the most exciting applications of the technology in humans—and that only took a decade, warp speed in research terms. What will the next decade with Crispr hold?


Explain it like I’m 5

As recently as the 1970s, gene editing was a slow, labor-intensive process that took a lot of time and specialized equipment.

Crispr helped get around all that. Crispr is a naturally occurring enzyme that bacteria use to store the genetic code of viruses that could infect them, the way our immune systems remember a virus we’ve already been sick with.

Crispr itself is actually an acronym—it stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” because it refers to its most distinguishing feature: repeated letters of the genetic code. Those repeats act as a signal for the enzyme to cut DNA in a particular spot.

Researchers realized that they were able to alter the Crispr enzyme to snip into DNA at a particular spot of their choosing. That gives them the ability to add, delete, or modify the genetic code as they please.

Here’s a helpful explanatory video.


Brief history

1993: Spanish molecular biologist Francisco Mojica starts working with repeated sequences that we now know to be hallmarks of Crispr.

June 28, 2012: Researchers led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the University of California, Berkeley and the Umeå Centre for Microbial Research in Sweden, respectively, publish their first study on Crispr in Science.

Dec. 12, 2012: The Broad Institute at Harvard is granted a provisional patent for Crispr. Doudna and Charpentier’s institutions were given one with a preliminary date of Jan. 28, 2013.

Jan. 3, 2013: Researchers led by Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute publish a paper, also in Science, using Crispr on human cells for the first time.

2016: Due to its potential for misuse, the US Intelligence Community designated genetic editing a “Weapon of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.” Also, three Crispr-focused biotech companies—Editas, CRISPR Therapeutics, and Intellia—went public.

Oct. 28, 2016: Crispr is injected into a living person for the first time.

Oct. 7, 2020: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry.

March 1, 2022: After a protracted legal battle, a judge grants the Broad Institute the sought-after patent for Crispr.


Crispr’s greatest hits

Here are some of the things scientists have done with Crispr over the past decade.

😷 Fought cancer. From the lungs to the cervix, Crispr has shown promise in combating many different kinds of cancers. Some experiments use the enzyme to harness the immune system to attack the cancer.

🧬 Treated heritable diseases… including cystic fibrosis, congenital blindness, and muscular dystrophy.

🦠 …and infectious diseases such as HIV.

🌾 Improved crops. Using Crispr, researchers were able to make crops grow, look, and taste different, as well as offer more nutrients and make them more resistant to disease.

🪱 Neutralized parasites. Experiments modifying the genetic code of parasites such as roundworms and ticks found that such changes on a broad scale could make the organisms less harmful to humans.

💉 Run successful experiments in living humans. In trials, patients with transthyretin amyloidosis and sickle cell disease responded well to treatments in which cells were removed from their bodies and modified with Crispr.

👶 Changed babies’ DNA. In Nov. 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui presented at a conference that he had modified the genetic code of three children who had recently been born. This sparked an international scandal that landed the scientist in jail.


🔮 Predictions

Crispr-based medical treatments will reach the clinic. Some speculate that this could happen as soon as next year.

There will be some bold conservation projects. As the increasing effects of climate change are felt around the world, researchers will turn to Crispr as a tool to mitigate some of the losses. They might make crops better able to survive with less water, or even try to preserve or revive species using the enzyme.

We’ll face some thorny ethical questions about who gets Crispr-based treatment, about what kind of risk is acceptable, and about what it means to be human, to name a few.


Keep learning

Gene editing: Biology’s gold rush (Quartz)

The age of genetic medicine (Quartz)

CRISPR, 10 Years On: Learning to Rewrite the Code of Life (New York Times)

A simple guide to CRISPR (Vox)


Sound off

What gene editing innovation are you most excited about? 

New medical treatments

Revived species

Designer babies

In last week’s email about the end of globalization, 38% of you said the next phase of globalization will be all about the splinternet. Hope we can still send you memes.


Have a great week ahead,

—Alex Ossola, membership editor (would maybe like to see a woolly mammoth someday)


One ⚖️ thing

In March, a judge ruled that the Broad Institute was granted the patent for Crispr. That ended a legal battle that had started in 2016 between Feng Zhang from that institution and the University of California, where Jennifer Doudna did her research. The decision had more than bragging rights at stake—in 2017 Forbes estimated that a broad, exclusive license would be worth around $265 million, though the exact number won’t be known for years.

But that likely won’t be the last such dispute as there are now more than 11,000 families of patents related to Crispr technology, Nature notes. More legal battles are sure to come as more applications for these variations emerge.

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