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The Need for CRISPR Education

Cas9 molecule bound to a DNA strand
Cas9 molecule bound to a DNA strand preparing for scission

Unlike any other scientific field, biology is rife with excitement. New biotechnology techniques have brought about increased biomedical, environmental, agricultural, and clinical progress. While at the same time a growing global population motivates health initiatives and solutions even further.

As a result of this brouhaha, biologists are in high demand both in industry and university settings. In the pharmaceutical state of New Jersey for example—a place where the offices of Beckton Dickinson, Fisher Scientific, MSKCC, Johnson & Johnson are a stone’s throw from my house—getting an entry-level biotech job or internship has never been easier. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19% growth in molecular biology jobs from 2012–2022. That’s a few significant ticks up from the BLS average growth rate. Clearly, biotech is in style. And the trend shows no signs of leveling off.

After all, an exploding healthcare industry needs biologists behind it, pumping out new medical solutions to keep momentum.

But what exactly is powering growth? There are numerous forces propelling research forward. At the helm of this biological charge is the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9 system (CRISPR/Cas9 or CRISPR for short), a new genome editing tool turning traditional biology upside-down. Even though the technology bears a fair share of limitations, it is still a momentous leap over its predecessors ZFNs and TALEs.

CRISPR offers an unheard-of efficiency, affordability, and accuracy past methods cannot deliver. Cas9 systems are transfected into cells usually via custom-made circular pieces of DNA called plasmids. When inside the cell, the Cas protein cuts at a given locus, which can enable exogenous DNA to be inserted into the genome.

The technology is already making strides in inherited disease, HIV, malaria, retinitis, and cancer treatments. A study published two months ago in the journal Molecular Therapy demonstrated that CRISPR editing completely excised HIV proviruses in mammalian cells. Effectively, a mouse that had AIDS, no longer has it. Studies like these have taken genetics by storm. The number of CRISPR citations shot up to 1191 in PubMed in 2015. This explosive trend carried over into last year and 2017. Based on indications of current use, the CRISPR breakthrough is here to stay.

Nearly all of the biotech companies and institutions I mentioned earlier have adopted the technology for in-house experimental R&D. Some large and small biotechnology suppliers have incorporated it into their business model, becoming plasmid-pumping factories. After all, at remarkably low costs, what stops even low-level institutions from acquiring the tech?

That introduces a serious problem. Life science/biology majors fresh out of college seeking work will inevitably encounter CRISPR. Maybe they’re not always the ones assisting experimentation or fulfilling a plasmid order, but these entry-level bio students wanting lab experience (not desk jobs) are likely to be involved with CRISPR in some capacity. However, most if not all have zero prior experience with it. In consequence, the traditional biology curricula dominating high schools and colleges appears somewhat outdated. Just like how history teachers and professors try to incorporate current events, science educators need to do the same with their students and CRISPR.

Thankfully, colleges have begun the creation of CRISPR teaching labs. While many colleges and nearly all high schools are behind the curve still. As of right now, our students and educators have much CRISPR to learn. Considering that many of these students will be expected to work with or at least know about CRISPR in the lab, it is essential that their education prepares them for that reality.

I can confirm this. I applied for a general biology internship for this summer. During the interview, I was surprised to hear the professor ask me: “Do you know what CRISPR/Cas9 is?” I responded with what I knew, to which he said, “Great. We use it in the lab all the time.” Knowing about CRISPR gave me an edge over other applicants that ultimately landed me the spot.

Teaching CRISPR/Cas9, although intimidating at first, can be fairly simple. In a Wired feature, one biologist explained the concept to multiple students: from 7-year-olds to graduates, demonstrating that difficulty is scalable per your audience’s education level. Of course, there is concern from biology teachers locked into the College Board curriculum who don’t have space or time for new units. The simple solution is that after May AP exams, secondary students have a whole month and a half for independent study. At this point, some students check out mentally, but perhaps adding a CRISPR activity can maintain interest.

My teachers always took the time after APs to discuss modern science as well as tackling our own initiatives. A CRISPR lesson, spanning fifteen minutes to even a couple days, helps fulfill this goal. Even with minimal exposure, the key concepts come through. Allowing students to consider its impact and bioethics, let alone its mechanisms, enables scientific discussion in the classroom.

Moreover, CRISPR may help satisfy a few Next Generation Science Standards set out by the National Science Teachers Association, including: HS-LS3, HS-LS1-1, HS-LS4-6, and HS-LS2-7. By satisfying these standards on molecular biology and environment, it is likely students will perform better on standardized testing such as the New York Regents Living Environment Examination or the New Jersey Biology Competency Test or even the SAT Subject Test in Biology.

Most biology educators are familiar with genetic recombination, a more basic (but still tested) form of genome editing. High schoolers are typically tasked with the standard lab: engineering bacteria to confer antibiotic resistance via recombination. This technique has a few commonalities with CRISPR, so teaching the two alongside each other fits well in a biotechnology module.

CRISPR/Cas9-mediated editing achieves a similar result as recombination in the lab. The Odin, a kickstarted science purveyor, recently began offering CRISPR classroom kits at $75. In the experiment, Cas9 inserts antibiotic-resisting genes directly into the genome (unlike recombination). Each kit contains wares, instructions, tools, etc., for five experiments, at 5–8 students per experiment. My school may consider filing a grant with a local education foundation to purchase kits for the classroom. Versus other STEM grants/supplies into the thousands of dollars, basic CRISPR is relatively cheap.

Budget willing (at a private school most likely), a student group can even be invited to partake in an original CRISPR research project of their design, under supervision of course. Being that an order of plasmids can cost as little as $300, along with Addgene’s incredible 101 design guide, CRISPR experimentation may be feasible.

By empowering students to explore CRISPR hands-on, they get to fully comprehend its capabilities and prepare themselves for professional labs equipped with the technology. Any student—even without hands-on experience—can develop their scientific curiosity, further grasp the scientific method, and overall better themselves as the next generation of bioscientists. With CRISPR’s now ubiquitous reign as an implement in labs everywhere, all of us must be ready for what CRISPR can do. By preparing students for a CRISPR future, upcoming scientific breakthroughs inch ever closer.


Editor: Maria ‘Stefi’ Ticsa