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Science Matters Series Explores the Next Steps for CRISPR

CRISPR researcher Rodolphe Barrangou was the inaugural speaker at AAAS' new Science Matters event series. | 4Site Studios

With the gene editing technology CRISPR already ubiquitous in the science world, the next challenge includes expanding commercial applications and increasing public acceptance of the technology, according to a leading researcher on the subject.

Rodolphe Barrangou, professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at North Carolina State University and editor-in-chief of The CRISPR Journal, spoke at the inaugural Science Matters lecture, a new series of events to give members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science the opportunity to learn about work published by Science directly from researchers and Science staffers. The lecture held at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27, to coincide with a special issue of Science titled “Technologies Transforming Biology,” in which CRISPR gene editing was featured. At the event, Barrangou fielded questions from Science reporter Jon Cohen and the audience about CRISPR, the breakthroughs it has yielded and its potential for technological innovations.

This is not the first time that Barrangou and Science have crossed paths. In 2007, the journal published a paper in which Barrangou identified a defense mechanism that bacteria in yogurt use to fight off viruses. He determined that CRISPR – the acronym stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” – gives bacteria immunity from invasive genetic elements by recognizing and capturing such invaders, allowing the tool to be used to cut away the responsible DNA.

Barrangou, a food scientist, offered an analogy to understand the ways bacteria can cut, or cleave, away DNA – and how scientists have turned this scientific understanding into the transformative technology it has become. “Imagine having different cleavage devices in your kitchen, like a knife, a butcher’s knife, maybe a razor to shave garlic, maybe a chainsaw or a blender, depending on how domesticated or not you may be,” he said.

Among the cleavage devices that scientists have harnessed is the enzyme Cas9, a “molecular scalpel” that can be used for genome editing, by adding, removing or rewriting DNA at the cleavage point, he said.

“We have all the tools we need, thanks to CRISPR, to edit any genome you want, in any way you want, in any organism you want,” Barrangou said. “I would argue that imagination is the only limit to what you can do genetically with CRISPR.”

Barrangou argued that the next revolution in CRISPR is coming to the business world, where companies specializing in food, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology are investing in CRISPR technologies. The innovative pace has picked up with about one startup related to CRISPR technologies being created each month.

While CRISPR-based clinical pharmaceutical trials are slated to get underway this year in the United States, the food and agricultural industries are most likely to see commercial breakthroughs first, Barrangou said. Whether the public knows it or not, most people have consumed a CRISPR-enhanced product, he added. Since 2011, cheese and yogurt makers, for instance, have used CRISPR to produce starter cultures more resistant to viral attacks.

“We already live in a CRISPR world,” Barrangou said.

He also cited work being done to enhance functional traits in crops, like knocking out the gene that causes browning in white button mushrooms and increasing the yields of tomato plants – important steps that can reduce food waste and grow more food for increasing global populations.

Yet, CRISPR-enhanced products do raise ethical and safety considerations – should human genetic material be edited? Concerns also focus on the challenges of regulating such technology on a global level. For Barrangou, such questions present opportunities for scientists to address.

Barrangou did acknowledge the difficulties a relatively small group of scientists are facing in conveying the benefits of CRISPR to the rest of the world. He noted that groups like AAAS can help communicate the benefits of CRISPR to foster public acceptance of the technology. 

“The challenge is not technological; the challenge is not scientific,” he said. “The challenge is regulation and policy and acceptance by the public.”

The next event in the Science Matters series will take place in January 2019.

[Associated image: nathan/Adobe Stock]