A group of scientists at the CRISPR 2017 conference in Big Sky, Montana were witness to a shocking video by structural biologist Osamu Nureki of the University of Tokyo.
"I was sitting in the front, and I just heard this gasp from everyone behind me," biochemist Sam Sternberg told The Atlantic.
Single-molecule movie of DNA search and cleavage by CRISPR-Cas9. pic.twitter.com/3NQxmbvzJF— hnisimasu (@hnisimasu) November 10, 2017
They watched a CRISPR-Cas9 or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats cleave into a piece of DNA in real-time. CRISPR can be programmed to target specific stretches of the genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations, as well as for other purposes, such as for new diagnostic tools, according to Broad Institute.
CRISPR-Cas9 behaved precisely the way scientists assumed it would work since its creation as a tool for editing genomes. When CRISPR interacts with virus DNA, it copies it into short RNA sequences called 'guide RNA.’
“Cas enzymes will follow the guide RNA through cells, and when it finds DNA that matches the guide RNA, it destroys it by cleaving it - like a pair of molecular scissors,” according to Science Alert.
The system can be used for highly targeted genome editing and has been proven to work on many species. So far CRISPR has treated genetic conditions in rodents, changed the color of a flower, eliminated HIV in living animals, slowed the growth of cancer cells and even removed a gene that causes heart disease from a human embryo. In short, this system could save countless lives.
The clip witnessed by the group of scientists was the first time anyone has seen CRISPR in action until now the process by which it works has been purely speculative. The minuscule nature of the occurrence is just too small for most imaging methods.
To achieve this, Nureki and his team developed a technique called high-speed atomic force microscopy. A microscope like this consists of a very sharp-tipped probe on the free end of a cantilever. The probe is then lowered towards the surface and deflects away from it, continuously.
During this process, a laser then detects minor changes of the deflections of the cantilever as it moves over raised surface features. These are then recorded in order to develop a picture of what the probe is scanning. The needle moves so quickly it produces a moving image.
Luckily, one of Nureki’s researchers posted a video of the event on twitter showing a yellow blob and brown strands interacting. The yellow blob is Cas9, and the brown strands are DNA.
In the video, it takes seconds for CRISPR to munch into the DNA strand. This tiny, quick action is a historic moment for science, and the post has received 2,500 likes so far plus shock and awe from the scientific community.
“The result is fairly easy to understand,” said Hiroshi Nishimasu, one of Nureki’s collaborators on the paper. “People say, ‘Wow!’ It’s very simple.”
The paper detailing the moment was published in Nature Communications.