CRISPR-Cas is a genome editing tool that is making headlines for its potential impacts in medicine, agriculture and other areas. Dr. Chase Beisel, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), is working with colleagues across NC State’s campus to determine how the system works and its potential benefits. Beisel joined the CBE faculty in 2011 after a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.
What is a CRISPR-Cas system?
It is an adaptive immune system in bacteria that fends off bacterial viruses and other genetic invaders. While our adaptive immune systems use protein antibodies to recognize invaders, CRISPR-Cas systems use RNA as the recognition element. It is remarkably easy to design and use these RNAs along with the system’s Cas proteins, which has spurred the development of tools that are revolutionizing biotechnology and medicine.
As researchers learn more about it, what are the possible uses?
The major use currently being explored is genome editing, whether to reverse genetic diseases in humans, improve crop plants, engineer microbial chemical factories, or combat disease vectors and agricultural pests. There are many other applications too, such as using CRISPR as an antimicrobial agent, an antiviral agent, or as a diagnostic tool.
What kinds of human diseases are we talking about?
The most immediate focus is on immunotherapy, or genetically augmenting our immune cells to recognize certain diseases such as cancer. There is also a concerted effort to address diseases that have a single causative mutation, such as muscular dystrophy.
How are you using it in your research?
We are exploring the natural functions of CRISPR-Cas systems and how these systems can be used as antimicrobial agents. As an antimicrobial, CRISPR can be programmed to selectively kill some bacteria such as pathogens while sparing others such as beneficial bacteria. It also acts separately from common mechanisms of multi-drug resistance and could provide a way to combat antibiotic-resistant infections.
When you think about where research on CRISPR-Cas systems is going, what is the most impactful use you can imagine?
I am most intrigued by the use of CRISPR for genetic pest management. CRISPR can help spread genes through a wild pest population that either eliminates the pest or makes it less pest-like, such as genes that make it harder for mosquitos to carry the causative agent of malaria. The potential of these technologies is incredible, although they raise questions about controlling gene spread and obtaining public consent.
Can you give us a sense of how important the development of this tool is to the future of your field of study?
It is hard to understate the growing importance of CRISPR in my broad field of synthetic biology let alone biotechnology. CRISPR greatly accelerates genome editing and allows researchers to do what was otherwise thought extremely difficult or even impossible. CRISPR is becoming an essential tool used in almost every lab, and any labs that fail to adopt it are at a tremendous disadvantage.