When CRISPR-Cas9 came on the scene in early 2013, the talk swirling around it focused on embryonic gene editing or whether it could be used to treat disease. But molecular biologists realized almost immediately what this cool new tool could mean for lab work.

They’ve been hacking the molecular scissors ever since.

At a Tuesday workshop, ASCB members had a chance to hear the latest ways CRISPR is being manipulated to enhance research efforts in the lab.

Jacob Corn, scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative at the University of California Berkeley, began with an overview of how CRISPR is used for to edit the genome. “Genome editing fundamentally is all about DNA repair,” he said. “But you don’t have to be an incredible expert in the gene editing system itself. You can focus on the biological questions.”

In his introduction, he addressed guide RNA design, how to make CRISPR tools more efficient and how best to work within different types of cells and organisms. He showed an example of how CRISPR tools can be used to study – and perhaps, one day, to treat – sickle cell disease.

Martin Kampmann, a systems biologist and assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco, followed up with an explanation of CRISPR-derived tools for genetic screening, including how it can be used to turn specific genes on and off. Kampmann earlier had been using RNA interference (RNAi) for a similar purpose. But CRISPR has proven to be more precise.

“RNAi is a shotgun with well-known off-target effects,” he said. “CRISPR is the scalpel that allows you to be more specific.”

Janet Rae-Dupree

Janet Rae-Dupree is a Bay Area-based freelance writer covering science and innovation.