A technology we took from bacteria is poised to transform our world. Image: California Magazine
One of biology’s wilder facts is that we’re all family. You and me, sure, but also me and a mushroom. Triceratops shared genes with you. So does the virus that makes you cough, and a rosebush. Bacteria left us on the tree of life around 2.7 billion years ago, but the wet world they came from is still ours: One code runs all of life. The same proteins that imprint memories in your neurons, for example, do so in octopi, ravens, and sea slugs. This genetic conservation means tricks from one species can be hijacked. If you stick a jellyfish gene in a monkey, it’ll glow green.
Now, scientists have hacked a trick from bacteria that is about to change the world. The trick is called CRISPR, and it lets people do surgery on genes more quickly and easily than ever before. The discovery, first made by Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, is transforming biology from cancer to cornfields to mental illness. “CRISPR provides the ability to have ‘write’ privileges in DNA, in addition to ‘read’ privileges,” explains Alex Marson, an immunologist at the Innovative Genomics Institute of Berkeley and UCSF. “So we suddenly have the power to go in and change the code of life.”
CRISPR is intimidating, in part because of its unwieldy name: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Yeesh. What’s important to understand is that CRISPR is a strip of bacterial genome, a rudimentary immune system that evolved some 4 billion years ago. Long before the first primates stood up and plodded toward tools, Hamlet, and atom bombs, CRISPR was fighting off invaders.