Anyone can be a CRISPR scientist

Elina Blazhiyevska/Staff

Lifting a delicate, black lid, two UC Berkeley students carefully placed a fragile gel into a DNA imaging machine. With their instructor standing by, the students powered up the equipment, anxiously waiting to see the results of their weeklong experiment. To their bewilderment, a collage of lines appeared on the computer screen. The instructor turned to the nervous students with a smile and exclaimed, “It worked!”

The myriad lines represented strands of DNA, genetic sequences that were precisely cut using the genome engineering tool CRISPR. The students’ experiment mimicked the foundational experiment performed by scientists in the lab of UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna back in 2012. This experiment quickly reverberated beyond Berkeley’s campus, leading to a global movement.

Dr. Megan Hochstrasser and I envisioned a course that would be the first of its kind, a model that other universities could easily adopt and modify. Fortunately, we did not have to start from scratch. Between 2015 and 2017, the Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, organized a weeklong summer workshop for professional scientists who were interested in adopting CRISPR technology into their own research.

Science courses on university campuses rarely address the societal implications of scientific research. We wanted to create a course that can include students of all backgrounds. Apart from examining genomes and DNA, the course also addresses ethics, policy and regulation. With a technology as revolutionary and powerful as CRISPR, discussing the ramifications and possible nefarious uses of genome engineering should not be seen as an “add-on” to the course, but a core component. The world of CRISPR research needs philosophers, ethicists, historians and policymakers. If anyone can become a CRISPR scientist, then that certainly includes students in the humanities.

CRISPR proteins are used in thousands of labs across the world, altering the DNA of hundreds of different organisms. Now the movement has come full circle — back to Berkeley’s campus. It is only fitting that the campus responsible for pioneering CRISPR technology has taken the lead in training the next generation of genome engineering scientists.

Such a tall task fell on the shoulders of the IGI. The IGI, founded by Dr. Doudna, is a research partnership between UC Berkeley and UCSF. The IGI uses CRISPR tools to develop human genetic disease therapies and sustainable agriculture. In addition to research, the IGI invests heavily in education and outreach, an effort led by Dr. Megan Hochstrasser and myself. Developing an undergraduate CRISPR course aligned perfectly with our mission to empower people through science, and we were eager for the challenge.

In 2017, with the help of Molecular and Cell Biology Instructional lab manager Fei Lin and IGI lab manager Ariana Hirsh, we adapted the professional workshop into an uncredited summer course. Ultimately, the lab and lectures were still too technical and the content too condensed. Designing an undergraduate CRISPR course was not going to be as simple as we thought. We went back to the drawing board. The result debuted this summer as MCELLBI N184: “Practical Aspects of Precision Biology for Undergraduates,” a course that we hoped could turn anyone into a CRISPR scientist.

What even is a CRISPR scientist? This is both a simple question and a difficult one. CRISPR scientists are embedded in nearly every biological field, from microbiology to biotechnology and from medicine to agriculture. To cover all of these areas in a single course, we enlisted 12 of the leading scientists from UC Berkeley and UCSF to present custom lectures. Students saw firsthand the types of questions that local researchers are fervently working to answer and got the chance to discuss this with the scientists.

But doesn’t a scientist have to work in a lab? It’s one thing to understand textbook facts, but some would say that to call yourself a CRISPR scientist, you must possess a level of laboratory aptitude. By the end of the third week, students found themselves altering the genetic code inside living cells. The foundation was laid, and now these students had the experience to bring their knowledge and skill sets to labs across campus and beyond.

So, did we succeed? I would argue that the IGI’s undergraduate CRISPR course was able to mold 30 new CRISPR scientists from all sorts of backgrounds and interests. DNA was edited, ethics were debated and the latest CRISPR research was dissected. Fortunately, this year was just the starting point. We plan to offer this course again next summer and aspire to adapt the material for other universities to adopt. From 30 to thousands, we hope that our new course will educate, empower and equip students to become CRISPR scientists. Whether altering the DNA of rice to withstand drought or crafting FDA policy to ensure the safety of upcoming human genome editing therapies, an understanding of CRISPR science will be useful across a range of disciplines.

Dr. Kevin Doxzen is a science communications specialist at the Innovative Genomics Institute.