Each year, Cal Day welcomes the Bay Area community to UC Berkeley’s campus, opening up classrooms and laboratories for the public. This university-wide event showcases the seminal research underway in every department across campus, highlighting the ongoing work that makes UC Berkeley the top public university in the world. On April 13th, 2019, the IGI joined in on the Cal Day festivities, guiding participants through several stations representing the diversity and breadth of CRISPR research on and off campus. Entitled “Rewriting the Language of Life: CRISPR DNA Editing at Cal,” this eclectic event opened a window into the diverse applications of genome editing.
Double Helix Crafting: What is DNA?
The iconic DNA double helix is the hereditary molecule shared amongst all living organisms. A person’s eye color and a tiger’s stripes are examples of traits encoded within DNA. Upon entering the IGI exhibit, visitors young and old built double helices out of licorice, marshmallows, and toothpicks. Before exploring the mechanisms of CRISPR genome editing in the subsequent stations, this delectable activity introduced core concepts of base pairing and the genetic code. In addition to candy helices, visitors assembled microcentrifuge tube necklaces and decked themselves out in science-themed temporary tattoos.
Genome Editing 101: How do we edit DNA with CRISPR?
Scientists often describe genome editing as a “cut and paste” process. This simple phrase captures a complex molecular process that is often difficult to understand. Our “CRISPR 101” station included models and resources to guide visitors through an introductory genome editing lesson, offering a chance to correct any misconceptions and hear the story of how basic biology research paved the way for a paradigm-shifting biotechnology tool. CRISPR experts used 3D-printed models, molecular animations, and other props to visualize the atomic-level process of genome editing.
CRISPR Screen Time: How does CRISPR work in nature and how do we use it in the lab?
Edutainment (education through entertainment) is an effective tool for engaging lay audiences. Our electronics area offered three unique opportunities to experience the origins and applications of CRISPR. Our Phage Invaders computer game placed users in the role of the Cas9 protein, ready to defend the city of Bacterium against viral attack. Over the course of each level, users learned the intricacies of CRISPR as a naturally-occurring bacterial immune system. Scattered across a classroom lab bench, CRISPR playing cards showcased the diversity of CRISPR proteins interacting with strands of RNA and DNA. Using our soon-to-be-released augmented reality app, “CRISPR-3D,” users brought these cards to life, twisting and turning iPads to explore protein structures from all angles. The final experience in this station used virtual reality to guide users through one of IGI’s cutting-edge biomedical projects. Strapping on a VR headset, users entered the body of a simulated sickle cell patient. Navigating into the nucleus of a stem cell, users received an up-close view of Cas9 at work, correcting the sickle cell mutation and ultimately leading to the production of healthy red blood cells.
Editing Organisms for Research: How does DNA editing help us understand nature?
Arguably, the most impactful application of CRISPR is its role in advancing the pace and possibilities in basic biological research. Scientists are now able to answer previously unfathomable questions about the world around us. To pull back the curtain for the public, we brought in non-traditional model organisms edited right here at UC Berkeley. Mark Stepaniak, a PhD student in Craig Miller’s lab, gave visitors a peek at genome-edited stickleback fish under a microscope. These tiny specimens are edited to reduce pigmentation in their eyes and skin, a form of albinism. Aaron Pomerantz, a PhD student with Nipam Patel, showed off pinned and live butterflies with altered wing patterns. Aaron uses CRISPR editing to better understand how butterfly wing coloration evolved and how patterning and camouflage strategies differ amongst species.
Ethics Corner: How should we use genome editing?
Before exiting the IGI’s Cal Day room, visitors had a chance to share their own opinions on how CRISPR technology should be used. Lined across the classroom lab bench, ten jars were labeled with a different application of genome editing. Ranging from treating genetic diseases to resurrecting extinct species, visitors were able to choose which five applications they would choose to fund if given the opportunity. In addition, visitors were encouraged to write down what makes them excited or fearful of this technology. Our next educational resource newsletter will reveal which projects the public wanted to fund and will compare this to how IGI researchers voted! You may be surprised…
The IGI aims to empower, engage, and excite diverse audiences, a goal that we hopefully achieved during Cal Day 2019. Thank you to all our visitors and volunteers! See you next year!
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