MIT professor and co-discoverer of CRISPR Feng Zhang speaks at Berkeley Forum event

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Michael Wan/Staff

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The Anna Head Alumnae Hall at UC Berkeley was packed with more than 200 attendees Wednesday evening as Feng Zhang, professor of biomedical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-discoverer of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, spoke on campus about the revolutionary capacities of the biological mechanism.

The Berkeley Forum, in collaboration with campus organization MCBcDNA, invited Zhang because of his “monumental role” in the progress and advancement of the genomic editing system, according to Hersh Bhargava, technology director for the Berkeley Forum.

“The development of the CRISPR-Cas9 genomic technology is something that is really going to significantly change not only science and research, but also humanity,” Bhargava said.

Zhang said at the event that CRISPR “harnesses nature’s diversity” — a phenomenon that, according to Zhang, takes advantage of understanding the processes in naturally occurring mechanisms of organisms in order to develop genome-editing tools.

Zhang emphasized the importance of genetic manipulation through CRISPR and how it can be beneficial to the discovery of both harmful and beneficial genetic mutations.

According to Zhang, more than 100,000 different bacterial genomes are in existence and have not yet been comprehensively studied. Zhang added that these genomes encode proteins of unknown functions, with many of them having “very powerful” biotechnological capabilities.

“By developing an advanced computational algorithm, we will be able to identify the specific functionalities (and) we can systematically profile them and turn them into useful biological tools,” Zhang said at the event.

Zhang described the CRISPR gene-editing technology as “molecular scissors” that can make cuts on specific locations in genomes.

“You can think of these cuts as cursors in Microsoft Word,” Zhang said at the event.  “Wherever you’re placing the cut in the genome, that’s where you’re placing these cursors in your document and, in this case, the document is the genome.”

On Feb. 15, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled that there was no interference between the CRISPR technology patents requested by the Broad Institute of MIT, Harvard and the University of California. The board determined that the two parties’ applications of the CRISPR technology were separately patentable, prompting UC Berkeley to release a statement.

“We continue to maintain that the evidence overwhelmingly supports our position that the Doudna/Charpentier team was the first group to invent this technology,” the statement said.

Campus professor of molecular and cell biology Jennifer Doudna and members of her lab could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Zhang emphasized the importance of other institutions’ contributions to the CRISPR-Cas9 technology.

“I think that this is the way we should approach the technology — make it accessible and do not stifle progress enabling as many people as possible (to use it),” Zhang said at the event.

Mariah De Zuzuarregui is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mdezuzuarregui.