Most students edit papers, but students in Hope College’s virology course are editing genomes.
Every Tuesday, on the third floor of the science center, students pull on purple plastic gloves and get to work. To the casual observer, it might look like they’re simply moving around miniscule amounts of clear liquid, and they are. But on the molecular level they’re knocking out specific genes of fruit fly cells to affect whether they can be infected by a virus.
“It’s been pretty easy to pick up because you’re just following a step of procedures,” said junior Sarah Zieschang of Austin, Texas, a student in the virology course.
Zieschang decided to take virology to meet a requirement for her biology major, but she didn’t know when she signed up that she would get to use CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”), an innovative new tool that is revolutionizing the way scientists conduct their research.
Since a study published in 2012 first suggested the use of CRISPR for editing genomes, it has exploded onto the scientific scene, and now labs at Hope College are among those utilizing the tool to improve their research.
CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats” and is essentially a molecular scissors that allows scientists to selectively cut out and replace segments of DNA in almost any type of cell. The system comes from bacteria, where it acts as a defense system against viruses, but CRISPR has ground-breaking applications for humans. It makes genome editing faster and cheaper, opening the door for everything from developing new treatments for genetic disorders to eliminating invasive species.
CRISPR has been all over the news, but it came to Hope College thanks to biology professor Benjamin Kopek. Kopek studies Flock House Virus (a pathogen that infects insects) to learn about how viruses use the genes of the cells they infect to replicate. When developing a course-based research experience for biology students at Hope, he first planned to use an older molecular research tool that does the same job of keeping genes from being expressed.
“At the last minute, I decided to throw in CRISPR/Cas9 as a parallel, kind of as a way to hedge my bets. I didn’t expect it to work, but it ended up working better and easier,” Kopek said. This year the lab is using CRISPR exclusively.
Last spring, in an advanced cellular biology course taught by Maria Burnatowska-Hledin, a few students also decided to try CRISPR during their independent projects and had similar success. Senior Chris Gager of Flushing took on the CRISPR project over the summer, using it to destroy proteins that regulate cell growth so that their lab can test potential drugs against cancer.
“Anyone with a basic understanding of laboratory technique can be trained to do it very quickly” Gager said, adding, “It’s very cool.”
Gager, who is hoping to pursue research in graduate school, noted that CRISPR also raises some ethical questions since it could potentially be used to edit human genomes. According to a statement released in 2015, The U.S. National Institutes of Health will not fund research that involves gene-editing techniques on human embryos. But research groups in China and the U.K. have already begun research using CRISPR on human embryos.
“We have unprecedented power for editing genomes, and that power is only going to grow so we need to be very careful,” Gager said. These conversations about CRISPR are only beginning, but wherever these conversations lead, experience with this tool will be a crucial addition to students’ research repertoire.