Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease in humans, where only one of the three billion base pairs, the building blocks of our DNA, has been changed. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could repair that? And not only in humans, but also in plants and bacteria?
About ten years ago, together with other microbiologists we discovered that some bacteria are able to defend themselves against viruses by using the so-called CRISPR-Cas system. CRISPR-Cas is able to specifically recognize virus DNA and cut it to destroy it. The big breakthrough in our research came when we found that we could let that system attack any DNA sequence we wanted. Not only in bacteria, but we showed later that it also worked in other organisms. In a short period of time, that has led to spectacular applications. For example, in the biotechnology, to make bacteria produce biofuel, or to make plants resistant against pathogens like viruses. Apart from that, CRISPR is used to heal people. In immunotherapy for cancer, for example, or in the aforementioned sickle cell anemia, by exchanging the one mistake in the DNA for the right building block. Isn’t that great?