What is CRISPR?


CRISPR technology is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. Its many potential applications include correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases and improving crops. However, its promise also raises ethical concerns.
In popular usage, “CRISPR” (pronounced “crisper”) is shorthand for “CRISPR-Cas9.” CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA. The protein Cas9 (or “CRISPR-associated”) is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA.
CRISPR technology was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea (the domain of single-celled microorganisms). These organisms use CRISPR-derived RNA and various Cas proteins, including Cas9, to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. They do so primarily by chopping up and destroying the DNA of a foreign invader. When these components are transferred into other, more complex, organisms, it allows for the manipulation of genes, or “editing.”
CRISPRs: “CRISPR” stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is a specialized region of DNA with two distinct characteristics: the presence of nucleotide repeats and spacers. Repeated sequences of nucleotides — the building blocks of DNA — are distributed throughout a CRISPR region. Spacers are bits of DNA that are interspersed among these repeated sequences.
In the case of bacteria, the spacers are taken from viruses that previously attacked the organism. They serve as a bank of memories, which enables bacteria to recognize the viruses and fight off future attacks.
This was first demonstrated experimentally by Rodolphe Barrangou and a team of researchers at Danisco, a food ingredients company. In a 2007 paper published in the journal Science, the researchers used Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, which are commonly found in yogurt and other dairy cultures, as their model. They observed that after a virus attack, new spacers were incorporated into the CRISPR region. Moreover, the DNA sequence of these spacers was identical to parts of the virus genome. They also manipulated the spacers by taking them out or putting in new viral DNA sequences. In this way, they were able to alter the bacteria’s resistance to an attack by a specific virus. Thus, the researchers confirmed that CRISPRs play a role in regulating bacterial immunity.
CRISPR RNA (crRNA): Once a spacer is incorporated and the virus attacks again, a portion of the CRISPR is transcribed and processed into CRISPR RNA, or “crRNA.”

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