This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to former Umeå researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier and her colleague Jennifer A. Doudna for their discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9. As the name suggests, it is about cutting and pasting in the DNA – the genetic code of life itself. Here at the University of Skövde, the CRISPR/Cas9 technique is an important part of teaching, which also opens up vital discussions on ethics.
Ebba Stål is in her third year of the Bioscience – Molecular Biodesign programme and has recently started using the CRISPR/Cas9 technique. Most recently, the students were given the task of modifying the DNA of the fruit fly. The small black fly was to be yellow instead.
- It’s been very interesting getting to modify the DNA of the fruit fly. I have always been interested in genetics. The fact that we are already able to work with CRISPR/Cas9 at the University at first-cycle level has been very instructive and lots of fun, says Ebba Stål.
Hatching of yellow banana flies
During the lab test, the students built the CRISPR/Cas9 system for this purpose. It was then injected into the fruit fly to change a specific gene, in this case the yellow gene. The result will be yellow fruit flies. In December, the fly larvae are expected to hatch. But why do we need to change DNA? What is the point of that? Ebba Stål explains:
-Yellow fruit flies might be irrelevant, they are annoying just as they are. But, with climate change, we are seeing how certain crops are being devastated. With CRISPR/Cas9, we can modify the DNA of the plant’s cells to make the plant more resistant so it can cope with the climate of the future.
A revolution in gene editing
The plant breeding that Ebba Stål has used as an example is in fact one of several areas in biology where using CRISPR/Cas9 as a research tool can make a big difference. Besides biology, there are also great opportunities in medicine where the technique can be used to develop new therapies for treating serious illnesses. Since its discovery, CRISPR/Cas9 has revolutionized genetic engineering, and Ebba Stål sees it as an obvious tool in her future career.
- I want to do research. Whether it’s going to be genetic engineering for plant breeding or to fight autoimmune diseases, I haven’t decided yet. I will start by doing my Master’s, concludes Ebba Stål.
Discussions about ethics
Ebba Stål and course coordinator Maria Algerin also point out that this new tool and the ethical challenges of genetic engineering are being discussed at various seminars with the students.