Genome editing is enabled by the development of tools to make precise, targeted changes to the genome of living cells. Recently a new tool based on a bacterial CRISPR-associated protein-9 nuclease (Cas9) from Streptococcus pyogenes has generated considerable excitement. This follows several attempts over the years to manipulate gene function, including homologous recombination and RNA interference. RNAi, in particular, became a laboratory staple enabling inexpensive and high-throughput interrogation of gene function, but is hampered by providing only temporary inhibition of gene function and unpredictable off-target effects. Other recent approaches to targeted genome modification -- zinc-finger nucleases [ZFNs] and transcription-activator like effector nucleases [TALENs]-- enable researchers to generate mutations by introducing double-stranded breaks to activate repair pathways. These approaches are costly and time consuming to engineer, limiting their widespread use, particularly for large scale, high-throughput studies.
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and CRISPR-associated (Cas) genes are essential in adaptive immunity in select bacteria and archaea, enabling the organisms to respond to and eliminate invading genetic material.