If you’ve been paying attention to developments in gene science over the last several years, you’ve undoubtedly come across the strange-sounding acronym “CRISPR” (pronounced cris-per). It may sound like a breakfast cereal, but it’s revolutionizing the way scientists interact with genetic code.
The acronym stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” which for the vast majority of us means next to nothing. What’s important is this: that string of puzzling words refers to an existing biological process found in bacteria, one that is being harnessed by scientists to edit genetic code with unprecedented levels of precision.
The details of this biological process became clearer in the late-2000s, when researchers began analyzing a defense system used by bacteria to ward off viral infections. Incredibly, it was found that many bacteria store snippets of genetic code from viruses that have infected them in the past—essentially a form of cellular memory—and use this information to identify and eliminate future infections.
That’s what CRISPR is: a bacterial immune system that utilizes “memories” of past infections to destroy future ones. It’s something the microbiologist Blake Wiedenheft has called a “molecular vaccination card.”
CRISPR is this, absolutely, but when deployed by scientists in their labs it is also a powerful gene editing tool (or form of biotechnology). With the CRISPR tool, the natural processes that allow bacteria to identify and edit the genes of hostile viruses are modified by scientists to identify and edit other genes as well.
In the world of inherited eye diseases CRISPR is an exciting breakthrough. Researchers are already exploring ways to use it to remove and replace the mutated genes responsible for retinitis pigmentosa and other gene-based forms of vision loss. The tool enables them to do this by precisely editing genetic code the way one would use a word processor to edit text on a screen. That’s a remarkable feat, and it carries incredible potential for those living with inherited vision loss.