A visual history of the game-changing CRISPR gene-editing technology

  |   Blog

Since the dawn of man, evolution has been gradually sculpting the genomes of all organisms on earth, however that doesn’t mean it’s been perfected. Sometimes, life threatening diseases get written into DNA sequences such as sickle cell anemia. Similar diseases used to be untreatable and lead to death until 1987 when a scientist accidentally stumbled upon one of the most influential technologies in science to ever be discovered. 

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, or CRISPRs, are adaptive immune response systems that protect prokaryotes from bacteriophages. The discovery of CRISPRs opened doors scientists didn’t even know existed, the potential to erase diseases from the human genome in the future.

In this blog, we will be discussing the history of CRISPR, how it has evolved, and the people that have helped develop it. 

1987: CRISPR was discovered by a Japanese scientist, Yoshizumi Ishino and his team, who accidentally cloned an unique series of DNA in E. Coli. This DNA sequence was unlike others in the sense that it had an “unusual series of repeated sequences interspersed with spacer sequences (source).” While this was a notable discovery, there was not sufficient data at the time to draw any conclusions.

1993: Researchers led by J.D. van Embden in the Netherlands discovered different strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis had unique spacer sequences between the DNA. They characterized the strains of DNA based on their spacer sequences, a technique called spoligotyping, and the sequences were found in many other genomes. 

The name for these unique sequences, CRISPR, was coined by Francisco Mojita and Rudd Jansen, who eventually used this term to describe the immune system in his writing in 2002. 

2000s: The discovery of adaptive immunity in CRISPR was found, as CRISPR-associated sequences (Cas) systems function as a way to prevent repeated infections by viruses. They were able to come to this conclusion because they found viruses cannot infect bacteria-harboring homologous spacer sequences, meaning that the CRISPRs play a role in the adaptive immune system in prokaryotes (source).

2012: CRISPR- George Church, Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Feng Zhang used CRISPR DNA in order to clone and modify genomes. They discovered that with the DNA editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, they could modify genomes by removing, adding, silencing or activating genes in the sequence. The purpose of this was to create something that would cure different genetic disorders. 

2015: The journal, Science, names CRISPR the breakthrough of the year due to the amount of genetic disorders and diseases that it helped to prevent. 

2020: Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their development of a method for genome editing (their advancements with CRISPR-Cas9). The genomic “scissors” they discovered help researchers change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision.

Current day: CRISPR Therapeutics, co-founded by Charpentier, is moving forward on clinical trials using the technology to tackle several major diseases, including sickle cell disease and multiple myeloma.    

What’s next for CRISPR: It is still early days, and with the growth of technology, there will be an opportunity to use CRISPR to discover new things!