For the science

A retired University of Alaska Fairbanks faculty member is teaching a summer class on CRISPR, which is being used in both the development of COVID-19 tests and the creation of a vaccine. It is playing a critical role in fighting this current pandemic. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

What exactly is CRISPR and why is it in the news so much? And why should Alaskans be interested in it?

The answers to these questions might surprise you.

CRISPR, which is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is called the most important biological discovery/invention so far this century. It’s arrival in laboratories across the planet has breathed new excitement into the prospect of finding cures for almost every disease known to man. And its reverberations don’t end there. There are literally tens of thousands of scientists now using CRISPR to unlock secrets that have long baffled us in medicine, agriculture, insect control, fish and wildlife studies, fuel production, ecology and even evolutionary history itself.

CRISPR is currently being used in both the development of COVID-19 tests and the creation of a vaccine. It is playing a critical role in fighting this current pandemic.

It all began in 2011 when Jennifer Doudna and her team at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Institute joined forces to study the chemistry that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses. By the following year, 2012, they not only tracked down the exact chemistry in this process, they went on to invent a variation of that chemistry which allows us to locate and edit any site on the DNA of any organism, large or small. This was an almost unimaginable tour de force.

At last there was a way to “fix” broken DNA. We now had a tool for finding a specific site on the DNA strands, and changing the code at that site.

But that was only the beginning of the story. Other scientists like George Church and Feng Zhang at the Broad institute soon began to improve on this tool, allowing it to identify specific DNA sites in order to make other kinds of beneficial changes to the DNA .

But, you might ask, how does this affect us Alaskans directly?

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this new technology will be useful in the North. Unlike most over our heads science, CRISPR has some unusual qualities. It is easy to use. It is inexpensive. And it works. There have already been a number of hands-on public classes in Fairbanks in which students have used CRISPR to successfully make genetic changes in bacteria that were simply not possible anywhere on Earth before CRISPR.

The North is a perfect place to explore the possibilities of this new tool. And surprisingly you can do bona fide research in your own garage.

For example, there’s a dog breeder in the states that is exploring the use of CRISPR to ensure crossbreeding produces a dog sans the weaknesses of its parents.

There’s a scientist at Cold Spring Harbor who specializes in tomatoes. He has used CRISPR to produce tomatoes that grow better in northern climes.

Then there is the gene drive. It is now possible to completely wipe out an insect species using gene drives. Technically, gene drives insert the code for CRISPR itself into the germ line DNA of the insect (e.g. mosquitos) And the CRISPR is passed on through the generations. If the CRISPR is designed to turn the insect offspring into all males, in a very short time there will be no more females of that species. Then there will be no more of that species.

Fish can be fattened up. Animals can be made more muscular. Oil eating bacteria can be designed. The possibilities are endless.

If ever there was a time to understand a scientific process that will affect us all directly, this is it. And that’s why Summer Sessions will be presenting an emulated hands-on course online which will explain and demonstrate this new biological tool to people who live in the Interior.

How you apply what you learn is only limited by your imagination. Maybe you’ll discover a hidden talent for genetic engineering and pursue it as a career or as a layman. But even if you never lift a simulated test tube again, this course will put you in a much better position to understand the advantages and risks involved in this remarkable technology as it moves North.

Joe Dart, a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks faculty member, is teaching Intro to Genetic Engineering with CRISPR as part of the Summer Sessions program. Like all summer courses, it will be taught virtually, July 20 to Aug. 17. For more information, visit www.uaf.edu/summer or call 474-7021.