Your CRISPR blogger tries the real thing

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My lab adventure in the Italian edition of Scientific American (Le Scienze)

It’s never too late to learn how to rewrite a genome. So here I am, attending this CRISPR school. Forget the do-it-yourself kits sold over the internet. I am lucky enough to take the first practical course on genome editing organized by the Italian Society of Agricultural Genetics (Siga) in Grugliasco, at the Department of Agricultural, Forestry and Food Sciences of the University of Turin. After writing a lot about CRISPR, it’s time to try the real thing.

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My CRISPR teachers: Emidio Albertini, Alberto Acquadro and Fabio Fornara

CRISPR is said to be a democratizing technology because it’s a cheap and handy tool. But I have not worked in a lab since I was an undergraduate some 20 years ago and genome editing is easier to say than done. My classmates are fifteen Italian researchers. We are here to learn how to modify the DNA of a plant species in three steps, from bits to molecules to seedlings.

Each participant can choose a gene and a plant. I target a candidate gene for apomixis and the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana, dreaming of the next green revolution. Turning staple crops asexual would significantly help breeders, by making the genetic improvement process faster and easier, and could greatly benefit farmers, by allowing direct reseeding.

First comes in silico CRISPR design, a nerdy thing to do for a 20th-century biologist like me. The molecular grammar of plasmids must work correctly to spot the right locus in the genome while avoiding off-target cuts. This is a real challenge without basic bioinformatics skills.

Then comes wet biology, i.e., pipetting reagents and amplifying DNA. I’m out of practice, but for my classmates this is the easy part. Things get even more complicated at the end of the day, as in vitro culture methods struggle to keep up with advances in genome editing. Here in Grugliasco we still use Agrobacterium-mediated transformation, the classic way.

The secret to getting everything done during a four-days course is the “cooking show approach”, where the dough is made while the cake is already baking. From the recipe to the table. Indeed from the experimental protocol to the culture medium. Nothing is as simple as do-it-yourself biologists would hope for. Finally, my CRISPR experiment is served but with a not-so-little help from real scientists.


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