CRISPR-Cpf1: Hype by Association

Biopolitical Times
A hand holds a dozen or so gold scissors.

Another week, a fresh slew of CRISPR gene editing news and developments.

On September 24 Thomson Reuters predicted that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier would earn a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their widely celebrated 2012 research on the gene editing complex, CRISPR and associated protein Cas9. We could know as early as October 7 whether the Nobel committee will cut the wait time between publishing and laurels for a chemistry award from its 20-year average since 1985 to just three years.

The same day that the annual Nobel predictions hit the wire, Doudna, Charpentier, and a number of other researchers were gathered at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York for the first day of a conference called Genome Engineering: The CRISPR/Cas Revolution. That evening, Charpentier co-chaired a session with Feng Zhang, a co-discoverer of CRISPR’s gene editing capabilities and currently a rival of Charpentier’s and Doudna’s in a patent fight about the discovery. When Zhang took the stage after Charpentier, he pivoted away from CRISPR-Cas9 and, in the words of one participant, “blew us all out of the water.”

Zhang’s talk described a new CRISPR discovery that would be published the next day in Cell: an alternative CRISPR-associated protein called Cpf1. According to a Broad Institute press release,


“Zhang and his collaborators searched through hundreds of CRISPR systems in different types of bacteria, searching for enzymes with useful properties that could be engineered for use in human cells.”

The statement goes on to quote Broad Director Eric Lander asserting that the “Cpf1 system represents a new generation of genome editing technology…with the potential for even simpler and more precise genome engineering.”

Nature’s and Science’s headlines echoed this assessment, celebrating the discovery as an improvement on Cas9 and a sharper pair of molecular scissors, respectively.

But coverage in MIT Technology Review included some additional views. Science writer Antonio Regalado quotes University of Minnesota researcher Dan Boytas, who notes that the “greatest value may be more in terms of the patent landscape than a scientific advancement,” and  George Church, who describes a coming “niche market for a collection of different proteins so that cuts can be placed anywhere in the genome.” Regalado also reports that researchers outside the Cpf1 research team “said the new system was likely to fill a limited role in what is a growing toolbox of DNA-editing techniques.”

Writing in Wired—a publication not averse to CRISPR hype—Sarah Zhang reinforced the idea that Cpf1 is not a Cas9 “rival so much as a complementary tool,” not so much an improvement as a method with slightly different capabilities. Wired quotes Feng Zhang’s research colleague John van der Oost: “We have the feeling it’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Doudna herself, in an October 1 interview on the Nobel Prize rumors, said that the research “underscores the wonderful diversity of these CRISPR systems” but that it was “unclear” whether Cpf1 will be “useful for genome editing.”

So for some, Cpf1 signals CRISPR 2.0, a “better way to edit the genome” or an “outsnip” of CRISPR/Cas9  potentially undercutting Doudna and Charpentier’s predicted grasp on a #NobelPrize. A different take is that we are still in the earliest stages of understanding the scientific, let alone the social, legal, and ethical, implications of CRISPR genome editing.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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