A runner-up in 2012 and 2013, the technology now revolutionizing genetic research and gene therapy “broke away from the pack, revealing its true power in a series of spectacular achievements,” wrote Science correspondent John Travis in the Dec. 18 issue. These included “the creation of a long-sought ‘gene drive’ that could eliminate pests or the diseases they carry, and the first deliberate editing of the DNA of human embryos.”
The implications of editing human embryos drove UC Berkeley inventor Jennifer Doudna to convene a discussion of CRISPR ethics in Napa in January, which led to an international summit in Washington early this month and a consensus statement to hold off on using gene-editing technologies to alter human eggs, sperm or embryos – so-called germline gene-editing – until more is known about the long-term implications of making hereditary changes to the human genome.
CRISPR, or CRISPR-Cas9, has invaded every other area of genetics, however, leading to genetically modified pigs, beagles and wheat. “Longer-lasting tomatoes, allergen-free peanuts and biofuel-friendly poplars are all on the drawing board,” Travis wrote. And biomedical applications are blossoming as scientists apply CRISPR to diseases such as diabetes, AIDS and cancer.
“In short, it’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that if scientists can dream of a genetic manipulation, CRISPR can now make it happen,” Travis concluded. “It’s the simple truth. For better or worse, we all now live in CRISPR’s world.”
UC Berkeley scientists also contributed to two runners-up for Breakthrough of the Year. Barbara Romanowicz and her team in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science published a report in September that helped show that “plumes of hot rock rising from the bottom of the mantle do exist,” according to Science. And John Dueber and his team in the Department of Bioengineering played a key role in engineering yeast to produce opiods.