When Dr. Julia Raizen started graduate school in the 1980’s, the term ‘molecular biology’ hardly existed. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), now commonly used in biology and medicine, had just been invented and was a slow, laborious process. While studying a class of immune proteins called immunoglobulins, Julia made use of PCR and other new molecular technology – she’s always been an ‘early adopter’.
This past year, Julia taught at Bryn Mawr College where she was tasked with creating her own curriculum for an advanced molecular biology course. She knew that ‘CRISPR’ was often in the news and decided to bring the latest technology straight to her students. “The rate of change in tech fields has become so fast,” she said, “But it takes time for new things to trickle down to the undergrad level. My students recognized CRISPR as the future. The chance to do CRISPR excited them.”
But what is CRISPR exactly? It’s a gene editing tool – just as a word processor enables the writer to replace mistyped letters in this document, CRISPR enables users to edit single nucleotides in DNA code. Editing a nucleotide in a DNA sequence can lead to an edited amino acid in a protein sequence. This leads to a change in its function. As Julia put it…
“Scientists have domesticated CRISPR, which serves a specific function for bacteria to fight off viruses. DNA in your body is mutating and being damaged all the time, natural repair mechanisms are always at work. CRISPR is the result of studying those mechanisms, domesticating them and pairing them with the DNA cutting enzyme used in bacterial CRISPR systems, cas9. All we’re doing when we use CRISPR is cutting DNA with cas9 and letting repair mechanisms do their work. It’s not magic, it’s just a couple of plasmids.”
The Spring 2020 CRISPR class at Bryn Mawr was going well with a lab portion that nicely complemented the lecture. When COVID-19 arrived, students left campus and Julia was tasked with teaching technology virtually and without a lab. This was a big change but she realized that she could teach students about CRISPR even from afar.
Molecular biology is an exact science, where the biochemistry is very well-understood. Like other exact sciences (ex: airplane engineering), design is a very important aspect of molecular biology. By emphasizing design and with the creative use of simulation tools, Julia has taught students how to use CRISPR without ever stepping foot in the lab. As it turns out, about 80% of the content Julia created can be done remotely.
CRISPR simulations provide big learning opportunities for students wherever they are. “If we can’t actually do the work,” Julia said, “at least we can work through the design pieces – I always find that simulating my work is helpful for learning.”
As she was creating this CRISPR course, Julia was also learning to use LabArchives. Her college-aged children were using it at their universities so she decided to trial it herself. “I found that LabArchives is data and STEM driven while a lot of other tools just save to the cloud. LabArchives has made it easy for me to share and give feedback while teaching.” With that, and COVID-19 looming, Julia approached Natalie Stringer, LabArchives Resident Professor, about sharing this course with others.
The pair have added the CRISPR Collection of labs to Lab Builder – LabArchives course content library. The content takes students through basic molecular cloning and DNA repair mechanisms. Students then learn how to apply these concepts to CRISPR gene editing simulations in bacteria. “Once students understand this,” Julia said, “they understand how it all works and the information is completely accessed.”