What is CRISPR?

Last Updated on March 22, 2018 by Angela Colonna

Technological advancements and market demands shape numerous industries, and horticulture is no exception. To meet these demands, this plant-based industry must continue to evolve in order to survive. As Darwinistic as this sounds, it is very much true.

Biotechnology, in particular, has become an important tool to help meet consumer demands and shape the marketplace. Research is being applied across the world in breeding food crops and ornamental plants using biotechnology.

CRISPR or CRISPR-Cas9 is a type of gene editing technology within biotechnology. CRISPR is being researched to better understand this tool and how we can apply it to real world issues. To break down this tool, let’s start with the basics.

What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a form of technology that mixes molecular biology and/or genetic engineering with the use of scientific techniques or procedures to examine and change DNA on molecular levels.

What is gene editing?

Gene editing is a group of technologies researchers can use to alter an organism’s DNA by adding, removing or altering specifics parts of a genome, or the genetic material of an organism. In horticulture, this genome would be part of a plant genome.

This is an albino tobacco plant that demonstrates the researchers’ use of gene editing technology to change a plant’s color. Tobacco plants are cheap to use and are commonly used as ‘test’ plants.

What is CRISPR-Cas9?

CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing tool within the scope of biotechnology. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Cas9 is short for the associated protein 9, a protein commonly used in gene editing although other enzymes can be used as well.

How does it work?

The process itself occurs naturally within plants when a virus attacks. Plant defense mechanism keep “snippets” of the virus DNA so it can remember it for possible future attacks. An enzyme,like the protein Cas9, is used to target the virus DNA so it breaks down and is no longer a threat.

In a research lab, these “snippets” can be detected and then used to target a specific DNA sequence in a genome to get a desired trait in a plant. The Cas9 enzyme still cuts the DNA like it does naturally.

Then the cell’s own DNA repairs itself to add or delete genetic material within the same plant genome or replaces an existing DNA with a customized DNA sequence. It is possible to add foreign DNA with this method like other traditional methods, but CRISPR allows researchers to work with pieces or characteristics within a genome and do not need to add foreign DNA.

Why is CRISPR important?

CRISPR is faster, cheaper, more accurate and more efficient than other gene editing methods currently being used in the scientific community and it is shaping the future of research, which then will impact sectors such as the horticulture industry.

“CRIPSR is like a pair of scissors that let you snip a specific piece of DNA; it is a tool,” said Dr. Huo Alfred, assistant professor at the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center. “CRISPR is an exciting tool in biotechnology because now we can see if our results are successful in one year as opposed to a decade with traditional biotech methods.”

For more information about Dr. Huo and his work with biotechnology, check out MREC’s recent Researcher Spotlight blog post.


Je Wook Woo, J. K.-G.-T.-S. (2015, November). DNA-free genome editing in plants with preassembledCRISPR-Cas9 ribonucleoproteins. Nature Biotechnology, 33(11), 1162-1165. doi:10.1038/nbt.3389

National Institutes of Health, U. (2018, March 18). What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9? -Genetics Home Reference. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/genomeediting


Posted: March 22, 2018

Category: Horticulture, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Research

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