Five Ways to Explain CRISPR Without Delivering a Lecture

Recently a FaceBook friend of mine (who is not a scientist) shared a video from WIRED Science where the concept of CRISPR is explained at 5 Levels of Difficulty— for a 7 year old, a teenager, a college student, a grad student and a CRISPR expert.

First it was pretty amazing to me that my non-scientist friends are interested enough in learning about CRISPR to share this type of information—perhaps showing just how popular and exciting the method has become. People outside the scientific field are hearing a lot about it, and are curious to know more.

This video does a great job of explaining the technique for all its intended audiences. It also is a nice illustration of how to share information in an easily understandable format. Even with the 7 year old and 14 year old, the information is shared in a conversational way, with everyone involved contributing to sharing information about CRISPR.

Really nice. Here’s the WIRED video:

Although this conversation is all about CRISPR, it ends up saying a lot about science in general. While the non-experts in the video talk almost exclusively about the potential for applying CRISPR to cure disease or create “designer babies”, the experts end up talking about the exciting possibilities of basic research.

I think that ending a conversation about CRISPR with a discussion of the importance of basic science is fitting because the CRISPR story, like many other science stories, is the result of years of work by scientists who were studying the basic biology of relatively obscure organisms when they discovered this “next big thing”. The CRISPR story started with Francisco Mojica, of the University of Alicante in Spain, who was “reviewing genome-sequence data from the salt-loving microbe Haloferax mediterranei and noticed 14 unusual DNA sequences, each 30 bases long” (see CRISPR timeline for details) and became fascinated with figuring out what they meant. Through the contributions of many other scientists, all studying aspects of basic biology in a variety of bacteria over the course of 15—20 years, CRISPR came to be.

It begs the question, what will the next big thing be? It could be lurking in some obscure sea creature at the bottom of the ocean, sitting in a humdrum organism at the bottom of your garden, or hiding in plain sight as a new application of a process we already think we know all about. This is what makes science worth the investment of our time and money, and the source of such good conversation.

Other Interesting CRISPR Summaries

CRISPR timeline: Here is a Broad Institute summary of the many scientists who contributed to the CRISPR story.

CRISPR Origins: Five big mysteries about CRISPR’s origins.Nature 541, 280–282 (19 January 2017) doi:10.1038/541280a.

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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