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San Diego Gene Editing Research Cited In Journal’s ‘Breakthrough Of The Year’

Aired 12/18/15 on KPBS News.

The journal Science has called the gene-editing tool CRISPR its "breakthrough of the year." In 2015, scientists used CRISPR to make precise changes to DNA in animals, human embryos and — as one team at UC San Diego demonstrated — insects.

The journal Science has called the gene-editing tool CRISPR its "breakthrough of the year."

In 2015, scientists used CRISPR to make precise changes to DNA in animals, plants and — in one highly controversial study — human embryos. Two scientists at UC San Diego are being recognized for their work demonstrating CRISPR's potential to make significant changes in insects.

"You can make any change to the genome you want," said UC San Diego's Ethan Bier, who applied CRISPR to fruit flies and mosquitoes this year. "It's really a geneticist's dream."

Bier and graduate student Valentino Gantz used CRISPR to propagate a rare gene through fruit flies in a lab-confined experiment, turning nearly all their insects yellow. By editing just one fly, they were able to set off a chain reaction, spreading the yellow gene to 97 percent of flies in only a few generations.

They later teamed up with researchers at UC Irvine to spread malaria-blocking genes through mosquitoes, proving that CRISPR could potentially be a powerful tool in the fight against insect-borne diseases.

Science cited their work in an article about CRISPR's breakthrough year.

Bier and Gantz didn't develop CRISPR, but they're among the many scientists who've been incorporating the relatively new system into their lab due to its simplicity and low cost.

Before CRISPR came on the scene a few years ago, Bier says, "Geneticists were just kind of relying on chance that nature would give them the mutation they wanted. Or you'd have to expend a huge amount of effort to make the exact mutation you wanted."

Looking forward to 2016, Bier said he hopes countries will agree to test gene-edited mosquitoes in real world environments to see if they could be used to fight malaria.

Watch previous KPBS coverage about San Diego scientists using CRISPR in fruit flies:

Evening Edition

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