CRISPR — Is there any good reason to edit an organism’s DNA?

Key facts about CRISPR

  • CRISPR is a cost-effective technology to edit the organism’s DNA easier than ever before.
  • It was adapted from a natural bacteria defence system.
  • The gene drives alternative makes possible to pass edited genes to offspring.


CRISPR is a technology that allows altering DNA sequences and modify gene function faster, easier, cheaper and more precise than previous genome editing methods.

DNA is a molecule which carries the instructions of how a living organism should growth, develop, function and reproduce. DNA functions as a storage device of biological information and RNA function as a reader that decode this information. The technology to modify these molecules is called genome editing.

There were several recognised genome editing methods before, but CRISPR has revolutionized the field. The reason for such a revolution is its simplicity, versatility and precision. CRISPR stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. The key words here are “interspaced” and “repeats”.

How works

The term CRISPR was used for the first time in 1990 to refer to unknown repeating sequences observed in different bacteria DNA. Later on, scientists found out that indeed these sequences are part of the bacteria immune system. When bacteria defeat a virus after a viral infection, they chop the virus DNA and store it in their own bacteria genome in CRISPR spaces.

The bacteria use these pieces of information to defend themselves from future viral attacks.  Whenever a new viral infection occurs, the bacteria produce an enzyme (Cas9) that check if the new attack match with the pieces of RNA viruses already stored. When the enzyme finds a match neutralize the virus by destroying that part of the genetic code.

Now scientists have figured out how all these mechanisms are triggered, and we can engineer the whole process to edit any genome sequence. In short, the CRISPR technology works like a pair of molecular scissors where only two components are needed: a guide RNA and the Cas9 protein. First, a specific gene is target base on RNA-DNA base pairing. Second, the gene is cut through the enzyme activity (Cas9). Third, a new sequence of engineered DNA can be added by using the cell’s own DNA repair machinery.

In that way, pieces of genetic material can be added, altered or deleted, easier than never before. With the current levels of efficiency, the use of gene editing methods for therapeutic use is a realistic future scenario.

Potential applications

CRISPR is a very young technology. For now, it has been used only in research labs. However, it opens so many possibilities that many pharmaceutical and biotech companies are investing in this technology. There are many potential applications of this technology, but all of them fall in three main branches: agriculture, industrial biotechnology and human health.

The most direct application of CRISPR-technology is to study the genes function. Thanks to the human genome project, since 2003, we have identified all the genes in the human DNA, but we do not know yet which is the function of each of them. Since CRISPR is very precise, scientists can rapidly delete individual genes and analyse which traits are affected.


Another application within reach is to improve crops. With a technology like CRISPR, it is possible to make fruit more tasty and nutritious. But not only that, it is also potently possible to remove the allergens from peanuts or improve drought tolerance. Even create hornless dairy cows.


Scientists are also working on correcting genetic defects and stopping genetic diseases. Although there is still a long way before seeing the first tests in humans, several research projects are seeking to erase genetic diseases like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HIV. In addition, CRISPR technology is a powerful tool to develop new drugs in a faster and cheaper way.


Finally, this technology could be used to modify entire species by using gene drives. These are genetic systems, which increase the chances of a particular gene passing on from parent to offspring. In this way, an altered gene can be spread through entire populations very fast. This is interesting for example, to make mosquitos more resistant to the malaria parasite, preventing its transmission to humans, to eradicate invasive species or to reverse pesticide and herbicide resistance.

History and future

In 1987, a group of researchers reported the existence of repeated sequences of DNA without purpose known in a specific type of bacteria. In 1990, the same sequences were observed in very different bacteria and the sequences were named as CRISPR. Following investigations, found that these sequences were virus DNA, and they formed part of the bacteria immune system.

By 2011, scientists puzzle how all this immune system works and in the following year, the final breakthrough was reached. Scientists discovered how to engineer all this bacteria defence process to edit any genome at any place they wanted. Although the understanding of the whole mechanism was conducted by separate research groups, 2012 is considered the official year of discovery of this technology as a genome-editing tool.

Since then, research using this technology has exploded to optimize it and make it more efficient and accurate. Much research is still needed to understand the full implications of this technology in more complex organisms.

It is foreseeable to see the first applications on agricultural products although the biggest challenges will be to handle this technology to one day been able to edit the human genome.


During the past decade, technological breakthroughs in genome editing have moved the primary research goal in biotechnology from treatment to modification and cure, bringing gene therapy and precision medicine into a new era. CRISPR is easier, faster and about four times more cost-effective than the previous best genome-editing tool, known as TALENs. That has accelerated the pace of scientific research in this field. However, there are still many challenges to deal with and new ones have arisen.


So far, scientists have performed most of the genome editing research on cells and animal models and have demonstrated that the technology can be effective in correcting genetic defects. But there are several hurdles before to start safe clinical trials on humans. CRISPR has an accuracy of about 70%. That means that there is a 30% probability of unintentional modifications of non-targeted genes. This can lead to the introduction of unintended mutations like the creation of a new disease. That is why many experts argue that experiments in humans are premature.

Gene drives and germline editing

Another uncontrolled potential risk is the use of gene drives, in the case of spreading beyond the target population passing to other organisms through crossbreeding. Furthermore, the use of this technology in mass rise problems that go beyond the biology, political and governance problems.

A variant of the gene drives is the germline editing, which consists in modify genetically human embryos and reproductive cells such as sperm and eggs. Such application will raise problems in off-target effects and unintended consequences for future generations, but also ethical and legal challenges. To address these concerns, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have published a report with guidelines and recommendations for germline editing.

The ethical concerns go beyond the technological challenges, but in any case open interesting debates about if we should make changes that could fundamentally affect future generations without having their consent, or the opposite case, if it is ethical to not modify the genes to cure potential diseases of future generation even when it is in our hand.


Now it is your turn.

  • What do you think about the idea of editing the DNA of an organism?
  • How far do you think we should go with this technology? Only to cure genetic diseases or there is no threshold for human enhancement, for example, to design taller and smarter humans?

Leave us your opinion in the comments.

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  1. History of CRISPR — Scientific study
  2. Applications of CRISPR technology — Scientific study
  3. Guidelines and recommendations for clinical trials for genome editing of the human germline — Report
  4. Human Genome Project — Website
  5. TALENs — Scientific study

Graphene — When will we be able to buy Graphene products?

Key facts about graphene

  • Graphene is a human-made material with applications in almost every field.
  • It is the thinnest material known, only one atom thick.
  • It is ultralight, super strong, flexible, transparent, biodegradable and highly conductor.


Since graphene was discovered has attracted the attention of all industries due to its marvellous properties and uncountable applications.

Graphene is a combination of carbon atoms, like coal, graphite, and diamond. What makes the graphene so special is that it comprise only one-atom-layer thickness arranged in a perfect hexagonal lattice pattern. It is a single layer of carbon atoms tightly bounded, a two-dimensional structure with no third dimension. It is, therefore, the thinnest material ever created by man.


This material has many properties. Due to its crystalline structure and super strong bonds, it is 200x stronger than steel of the same thickness. It can be stretched up to 25%, conduct electricity 250x better than silicon at room temperature and heat ten times better than copper.

Because it is only one atom thick, this material is super light 2250Kg/m3 vs 7700kg/m3 steel. It has also demonstrated high biocompatibility, potentially highly renewable since carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe and it is almost completely impermeable.


The main way to produce graphene is by a technique called exfoliation. This technique consists in extracting thin layers of graphite by sticking adhesive tape on bulk graphite and peel it off. This process is repeated, obtaining in each interaction graphite slices with fewer layers until only a single-atom-thick mesh of carbon remains.

This technique is used for R&D applications in the lab, but it is not practical for large-scale production. Constantly, new techniques are developed to produce graphene at a greater scale, but still, the purest and of the highest quality graphene is produced by exfoliation.

The two-dimensional structure of the graphene makes possible to create new materials by using graphene as scaffold combining with other compounds. These engineering materials might potentially open even more applications.

Potential applications

Due to its list of properties, graphene has many potential applications, which we will start to see after overcoming all its challenge.

Energy and electronics

Graphene is a promising material for energy storage solutions. Graphene-batteries will be more efficient than the traditional lithium due to no chemical reaction is needed, making them more durable and efficient.

Graphene is also a promising replacement from silicon electronics, its high conductivity together with being thinner and smaller than any other compound makes possible to design smaller and better microprocessors. Especially for CPUs since graphene heat dissipation is 25 times more powerful than silicon.

Because graphene is transparent and flexible, it is a good candidate for flexible screens and optical electronics in general, replacing the current fragile and expensive Indium-Tin-Oxide in touchscreens. These properties can also be exploited to develop more efficient photovoltaic cells (solar panels).

Nanoscale applications

There are also options for ultrafiltration applications. Graphene allows water to pass through it, but is, at the same time, almost completely impermeable to liquids and gases. This second characteristic makes the graphene a good alternative for future pipelines and ultra-sensible gas sensors.

Other areas of research are in the biomedical engineering field to develop wearable sensors of all kinds or even due to its nanoscale to drug development or sequencing DNA.

Finally, as already stated, graphene opens up new possibilities to produce any composite material that has to be strong and light, such as body armours or planes.

History and future

Graphene has been known theoretically for many years. The breakthrough was in 2004 when graphene was isolated for the first time by accident. Research at the University of Manchester sought to isolate pure graphite for its potential as a transistor. They extracted thin layers of graphite by means of exfoliation technique and attached these layers to a silicon substrate with electrodes to create and transistor.

Currently, some graphene-enhanced products have started to appear commercially, but full graphene products are still to come. First applications will probably be related to its electrical conductivity for super-efficient batteries. Applications related to its light and strong mechanical properties will be also expected in the near future. However, bioapplications still have a long way to go before we see them.


In the recent years, graphene has become very popular in the research world and also for the general public, sold as the thinnest, the strongest, the most electrically and thermally conductive, renewable and biocompatible material at the same time. It has been promised as a new revolution as it was plastic. However, there are still many technological challenges to overcome.

Production at large scale

We still do not know how to produce graphene at large scales. Until now the largest sheet of graphene that scientist has been able to produce has been the size of a credit card by exfoliation. Other methods to manufacture graphene are under development, but the quality of the graphene produced is lower.

Basically, the quality of the graphene is based on the number of layers. When graphene is layered, it loses many of its properties, including flexibility and high conductivity. Considering that a graphite crystal of 1 millimetre thick is made of 3 million graphene layers is easy to understand how difficult is to isolate one pure layer of graphene.

However, this balance of purity and scale is similar to the silicon production faced years ago, and due to its fascinating properties, research in the mass-production of graphene is heavily invested.

Superconductor ≠ semiconductor

Another critical point necessary to resolve is that graphene is a superconductor, but it is not a semiconductor. This is important to differentiate since the base of electronics is the ability to change its conductivity to generate zeros and ones. As long as we cannot completely switch off the graphene, this material will not be a serious candidate to overcome silicon.


All bio-applications will probably be the furthest from becoming a reality if they come true at all. Research on the potential toxicity of the graphene is still ongoing, results are contradictory. Although there is room for hope, we can always synthesize new graphite derivatives with better biocompatibility than pure graphene.

Graphene is too good to do not research further. A universe of graphene applications is waiting to be discovered.


Now it is your turn.

  • What application do you think will reach first the mass-market?
  • Do you think graphene will be as revolutionary as plastic was?
  • How long will we wait until seeing objects made of graphene?

Leave us your opinion in the comments.

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If you want to receive the new articles directly on your inbox, sign up for the free newsletter.


  1. Why graphene hasn’t taken over the world…yet — Youtube video
  2. State of the art of graphene products — Website
  3. Review of the quality of the current graphene production — Scientific study
  4. Review of the biocompatibility and biomedical applications of the graphene — Scientific study
  5. Graphene: The Superstrong, Superthin, and Superversatile Material That Will Revolutionize the World — Book
  6. The Graphene Revolution — Book