Every October, the world turns its gaze to Sweden and Norway as it anxiously awaits the announcements of the Nobel Prize. Yet this year, scientists appraised the award of one specific achievement: “for the development of a method for genome editing,” to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a type of gene-editing tool that adds or removes genes in a particular region of a genome. “CRISPR” stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, whereas “Cas” stands for CRISPR-associated genes; their presence was noticeable in bacteria with antiviral properties. Overall, CRISPR serves as a “molecular clamp” that binds to a targeted gene with Cas enzymes being “molecular scissors,” together forming a complex used to cut foreign DNA.

I was excited to hear the announcement as I studied CRISPR-Cas9 for my Integrative Research Poster at the University of Toronto. I presented that genetically-engineered cocoa plants reduced both fungal infection and destruction of cocoa plants, which are essential to the multi-billion-dollar chocolate industry, cocoa-derived medicines and cosmetics. Thus, CRISPR systems can not only change the face of microbial infection, but also helps sustain the globe, our health and economy.

It comes to no surprise then that the CRISPR-Cas9 system has immense potential during this pandemic. During my 2020 winter work term, I applied my knowledge of viruses to study the effects of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus behind COVID-19) on pregnant women and fertility. In February, I presented my research to 30 doctors, embryologists, and staff, introducing SARS-CoV-2, its preliminary effects on fertility, and proposing solutions to stop its spread including CRISPR!

Indeed, recent research suggests immense potential for CRISPR-Cas technology to detect SARS-CoV-2. Doudna and colleagues uncovered that another Cas enzyme, Cas12a, was able to indiscriminately cut single-strand DNA, thus acting more like a “molecular shredder” than a scissor. When tested on SARS-CoV-2, CRISPR-Cas12a was shown to be rapid (30-40 min for detection), reliable (95% accurate for positive SARS-CoV-2 samples), and accessible (no complex lab equipment), making it a potential method to detect viruses like SARS-CoV-2.

But instead of just detecting the virus, could we treat it? A Stanford University lab showed that CRISPR-Cas could target SARS-CoV-2 and other coronavirus strains! But with the potential for new SARS-CoV-2 variants, new tests will be needed to find key genes so that an effective CRISPR-based vaccine can be made for COVID-19 globally. For Charpentier and Doudna, this is the Nobel Challenge.

Constable, S. (2020). Can CRISPR help us in the fight against COVID-19? Mewburn Ellis. https://www.mewburn.com/news-insights/can-crispr-help-us-in-the-fight-against-covid-19
Gustafsson, G. (2020, October 7). A Tool for Genome Editing. The Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/uploads/2020/10/advanced-chemistryprize2020.pdf
Said, M et al. (2019, April 4). Hershey’s CRISPR n’ Cocoa: How CRISPR/Cas9 is saving Theobroma cacao [Poster presentation]. Integrative Research Poster Project, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Said, M. I. (2020 February 20). Coronavirus: How Virology Interfaces Pregnancy [PowerPoint slides]. Wix. https://mohammedsaid7.wixsite.com/mysite-1/work-term-1-anova-fertility