CRISPR: Revolutionary Biotechnology

“A Ground Breaking Gene Editing Technique…” Newsweek
“A Genetic Revolution…” CBS News
“Gene Editing for ‘Designer Babies’?”  New York Times
“Can CRISPR feed the World?” WorldNews Network

CRISPR has been grabbing headlines since its introduction to the public nearly a decade ago, both for the concerns it raises among ethicists and the promise it holds to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems. Discovered at the end of the 1980s, CRISPR is an rapidly developing biotechnology that scientists are using to edit DNA—the most basic building blocks of life--in an attempt to do everything from creating famine resistant crops to curing cancer, and it is a tool that few high school students get an opportunity to use in a lab.
Last summer, biology teacher Chrissy Dilley, Biology, attended a workshop on project-based learning and had an idea to reorganize her Advanced Topics in Biology course around three major themes. She had recently read about CRISPR and knew that would be an exciting entry point for exploring the world of inheritance and molecular genetics. She heard about a lab in Brooklyn where she could learn the techniques to teach CRISPR to students, and signed up for a course. The course was cancelled, but that little bit of bad luck led to an incredible opportunity.
Ms. Dilley persevered: she contacted GenSpace, a community lab in Sunset Park with a mission to make bio-technology accessible to the public at-large, and told them about her project. Because CRISPR technology is so new, there are not yet any high school curricula or resources. The folks at GenSpace had an idea – why not bring the GenSpace lab and scientists to Grace for a three-day immersive lab?
Will Shindel and Tina Lai from GenSpace came to the High School campus in November to teach Grace students about CRISPR-Cas9 complex. In the simplest terms, CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence.
Will and Tina led 18 Grace biology students in a lab using CRISPR to identify a yeast genome. The goal was to disrupt an existing red gene in the yeast and introduce a new gene that would encode a green fluorescent. To accomplish this, students would use an enzyme to scan the entire genome looking for one specific short sequence. The enzyme would then cut and open up the DNA and the DNA sequence would be added.
Mr. Shindel described the experiment, “CRISPR is relative new technology that is unique for high school students to work with. This experiment gives a visual output that makes it great to do in the classroom. If the enzyme doesn’t make the cut, the culture would be white. If it the enzyme did make the cut but the gene wasn’t successfully inserted, it would be red, and if the new gene was successfully introduced, students will see green fluorescents.”
Eden S. ’19 described her take on the lab, “The most interesting part of the lab was the use of advanced lab tools and machinery often used in biotechnology research, like the centrifuge and water bath. There's a huge difference between learning about something and then actually doing that thing, so being able to both learn about CRISPR and then actually perform a CRISPR lab gave all of us a very developed and comprehensive understanding of the technology and its uses.”
Naturally, the question about ethics came up during the course of the lab. Jane P. ’18 said, “While CRISPR is an amazing genetic engineering technology and can be medically, economically, etc. beneficial to society, we must all be cautious if and when CRISPR is introduced to the general public. It can be a slippery slope in terms of what is considered "beneficial" when humans begin to genetically engineer things more often using this technology, since the effects can be so drastic and potentially alter an entire species forever.”
Julie M. ’19 agreed, “I think everyone in our class has reached a similar conclusion, which is that CRISPR shouldn't be ruled out all together because it does have such groundbreaking medical potential, but must be heavily regulated.” On working with GenSpace, she said, “I thought it was great to work with them. They are obviously very passionate about science and it was nice to be able to learn more about CRISPR and the mechanics behind it, and then work with it ourselves.”
Next fall, Ms. Dilley plans to continue the partnership with GenSpace and have the next crop of AT Biology students work with CRISPR in the lab. Annually, there is a Bio Design challenge in which university teams partner with scientists and artists to develop an interesting bio-technology idea. The winners of that competition present their work at MoMA. In the spring of 2019, Grace students will be among the first high school students to participate in that competition.