The Rotary Club of McMinnville essentially received a biology lesson Thursday when guest speaker Kevin C. Ess, MD, PhD, FAAN, FANA, FAAP, spoke about genetic engineering.
Dr. Ess provided a simple description of genomic engineering starting with Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short.
“It is really a game-changer. When we look back 800 years from now, this will be seen as one of the milestones,” said Ess.
To understand CRISPR, an understanding of DNA is necessary because the two are linked.
“Take any cell, take the nucleus, not the nucleus of the atom the nucleus of the cell, you can pull out the DNA. If you have ever worked with DNA in a laboratory, it’s this really viscous, gooey stuff that is hard to work with, it all globs together. Why? Because it’s a polymer of just an incredibly long chain of molecules that form DNA,” Ess said.
He says our cells are organized in different units of DNA and compared it to a library.
“You can imagine that each hall of that library is one chromosome and within each hall that chromosome there is a book, and that book is one gene that includes information to properly make protein or do something and within that you can have errors on how those books were made and copied and one of those letters … can become something else incorrect and cause disease.”
Throughout the years, he says there have been many discoveries about DNA.
“One piece of information that is really tremendous is the knowledge that we are all about 99.97% identical. The only thing different about us is very few pieces of DNA here and there that gives us all the natural variation we have,” he said.
Humans are also very similar in terms of DNA to other organisms like plants, according to Ess.
“It is very humbling then to also look at other organisms like watermelon, tulips … they are about 70-80% identical to humans,” he said.
His main focus of his presentation was CRISPR. After he tackled describing DNA and its functions, he moved on to how CRISPR works. Ess said it was discovered by several scientists who were studying how bacteria protects itself from viruses.
“The way they do this is really the basis for CRISPR, and what bacteria have learned how to do is have sort of an immune system which is really pretty mind blowing to think that a bacteria has an immune system. And what it does, if a piece of DNA from an outsider or virus attacks it and tries to eject it, the DNA take over the bacteria and destroy it,” he said. “The bacteria has a memory of prior viruses that did this and keeps a record in its cell, in its DNA of the sequence of the virus and those are the form of those CRISPR’s and what that bacteria can do if a foreign DNA comes in, they can recognize it based on its library of prior infections and it can chop it up and cut that viral DNA.”
This means it is possible to edit genes and possible edit disease mutations to correct genetic errors. CRISPR has the potential to not only treat many diseases, but also possibly prevent them.