Science has chosen the genome editing method called CRISPR as its 2015 Breakthrough of the Year, an "unprecedented selection," Managing News Editor John Travis explains in a news story published in the 18 December issue of Science, given that the technique appeared twice before among Science's Breakthrough runners-up, and is the only runner-up to subsequently be elevated to Breakthrough status.
Science placed CRISPR at the top of their annual list of scientific breakthroughs given fresh demonstrations of its possibilities this year, including the creation of a long-sought "gene drive" designed to reprogram mosquito genomes to eliminate malaria; the first deliberate editing of the DNA of human embryos (controversial work performed by Chinese researchers last spring); and the CRISPR-driven deletion of 62 copies of a retrovirus' DNA in the pig genome, a move that paves the way for pig organs to be considered for humans awaiting organ donation.
Indeed, the works that earned CRISPR the prize this year are many, with several of those published in Science.
Travis's news article highlights the superior ability of CRISPR to deliver a gene to the right spot compared to its genome editing competitors — as well as the technique's low cost and ease of use, qualities that have allowed thousands of labs, high school students, and "biohackers" alike to begin exploiting the three-year old technique.
"It's only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make it happen," Travis said.
Though he has covered gene editing for a long time, he is able to point to the moment in time when the unique promise of CRISPR, compared to its competitors, first became most evident to him.
"My first glimpse of how big CRISPR would be was when I was editing a 2013 feature story, called 'The CRISPR Craze,' on [the technique's] history and potential, by Liz Pennisi," he said. "Then when the first gene drive paper this year came out — tested on fruit flies and published in Science — it struck me it could change society and ecology, more than just how biology was conducted."
The promise of this tool exists alongside continued debate about how best to regulate its use in plants, animals, and people, with the topic of human genome editing discussed by an international summit in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, which Travis covered.
Science 's highlighting CRISPR as the Breakthrough may help improve the public's understanding of what this technique is. "I think it will emphasize that CRISPR is just a tool that can accomplish what has already been discussed or speculated about in the past," Travis said. "That means we may confront ethical and societal issues faster than expected, but we've been having related conversations for years. I'm not scared of the future CRISPR will bring — I'm looking forward to chronicling it."
In a related Editorial, Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, expresses hope that "in two years' time CRISPR will have brought to many diverse fields in biology the enduring level of excitement and optimism that immunotherapy [Science's 2013 Breakthrough] has brought to cancer patients."
This year's special Breakthrough section also includes the results of a readers' choice poll in which the public voted on its favorite science breakthrough, declaring the voyage of the New Horizons spacecraft past Pluto their winner.
[Credit for associated teaser image: Courtesy of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT]