Punk Science

Hello again my fellow punk scientists!
Last week was a wild ride down the rabbit hole of genetic engineering, focusing on the newest tool in that arsenal called CRISPR/Cas9.
Within a few days of publishing that article, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, the two scientists who discovered this unique implement for gene editing, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
It is worth mentioning that throughout history only 58 Nobel Prizes have been handed out to women, 57 if you take into consideration the fact that Marie Curie won twice.
Of those, only 23 have been in a scientific field. In contrast, there have been 866 men who have been awarded the prize.
Charpentier and Doudna have been working on CRISPR for some time, their initial work having been published in 2011. Charpentier had originally been working with Streptococcus pyogenes bacterium, which belongs to the Strep A family and is harmful to humans. This work led her to discover the CRISPR strand.
This genetic altering tool, affectionately known as “genetic scissors,” worked in a fascinating way to carry out its task as a defence mechanism for the bacterial cells.
Imagine working in a photography development lab where your only job is to examine the film for damage before it is developed for customers. This is basically how the original CRISPR strand functioned in its host.
Much like a pair of hands, the strand of RNA would slide along the DNA strands in the bacteria and would read each section of genetic code, looking for broken or mutated sections that it needed to replace. When it came across such a section, it would remove the damaged piece, allowing the cell to repair itself.
What Charpentier and Doudna did next, however, took the experiment to the next level. They reprogrammed CRISPR/Cas9.
The original strand was only built to examine DNA for virus DNA, not for other negative traits that often alter a strand of DNA. Basically, the two scientists opened up the search parameters of the microscopic scissors and altered them so that CRISPR could recognise other deformities and damages along the line.
This was the basis for the revolutionary work that is being done with CRISPR now, including one of the most controversial human experiments in recent history that was mentioned in the last instalment.
From here, the possibilities of what CRISPR can do have been growing at an almost exponential rate. There is work being done in plant species to make them more resilient to disease and environmental conditions, which may make it easier for farmers to grow crops that would not normally survive in a certain climate. This one side of CRISPR alone could help scientists and humanitarians work towards the problems associated with the lack of food in certain parts of the world.
Another line of CRISPR research is looking into cancer treatment, and yet another is hoping to examine the ability for CRISPR to rid the world of inherited diseases.
Still, this little miracle is not without its controversies. Experimentation on the human applications of CRISPR is a current topic of debate in the scientific community, with many calling for a moratorium on all testing until more is known about the strand.
Their cause for concern is a big one. Currently, scientists have no idea how the alteration of a person’s DNA will manifest later down the road. Editing a person’s DNA not only changes them irreparably, but it also changes their offspring, as DNA is inherited from parents.
Never before have humans had that much control over the species, and the potential fallout of such power is concerning to many in the biology and chemistry fields.
Regardless of the applications in the future, Charpentier and Doudna will be immortalized for their work on discovering CRISPR. The findings from their work have spawned dozens of avenues for new science and technology and may lead to a revolution in the way science is conducted.
For now, that’s all the science we’ll be looking at this week. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of Punk Science, where we will be looking at yet another fascinating area of science and technology. Until next time, farewell from Punk Science: where we’re making science cool again!