Three Painted Lady butterflies rest inside of their terrarium habitat. Also known by their scientific name, Vanessa cardui, these butterflies are vividly tangerine, Bambi-spotted, with black banded trim on their forewings. The most fascinating thing about these three butterflies is not what they should be (a blend of orange and ochre) but what they should not be: butterflies with inky pigment patches in wing patterns.
But turning butterflies black is exactly what Dr. Lindsay Chaney, associate professor of biology, and her lab students are bringing into focus through the use of CRISPR (pronounced "crisper") gene editing. Exploring gene editing at a community college – even a top-ranked institution like Snow College – is an exciting, unmatched opportunity.
CRISPR, along with the Cas9 enzyme, is a revolutionary tool. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, refers to sequences of DNA that some bacteria use to recognize past infections and protect against future ones. The website of CRISPR Therapeutics, a CRISPR/Cas9 research and development company, states that Cas9 “acts as ‘molecular scissors’ to cut DNA” at a specific location. Used together, CRISPR/Cas9 allows genes to be disrupted, deleted, corrected, or inserted. This experience is immensely valuable for students, especially since gene editing has many applications, including the medical, agricultural, and bioenergy fields.
Gene editing is still relatively new on the science scene (the acronym CRISPR was only proposed in 2001). While discussing the topic, Chaney pulled out two possible textbooks for her upcoming fall course; mammoth as they were, the textbooks averaged only 1.5 pages that were dedicated to CRISPR technology. Because of this, Chaney has developed her own curriculum, where students focus on both reading primary scientific articles and directly using CRISPR to alter genes in butterflies. This gives students firsthand experience into gene editing mechanisms instead of just reading about what the other colleges/universities are researching. In Chaney’s dream world, students could design their genes that they could test out, disrupt their own gene, and figure out how it affects a specimen’s appearance.
Chaney is working to make this dream a reality for Snow College students, even though she acknowledges that many genetic mutations are still out of reach, even for gene editing experts. And using CRISPR does not confirm success, either. Further mutations may still happen, the RNA sequences may not bind, etc.
So why edit butterfly genes?
“Butterflies are so charismatic,” explains Chaney. “[In our lab], we’ve used CRISPR to alter genes in zebrafish and bacteria, but with butterflies, you can get anyone interested in them.”
Chaney cleverly has a hands-on approach for her students: using paper cutouts, students cut DNA sequences and match them to RNA sequences through a complementary base pairing. Using this method, students can map out the edits they would like to make and how these edits would change a specimen’s physical characteristics.
In place of paper cutouts, consider the web interactive launched by HHMI BioInteractive on how CRISPR/Cas9 technology functions in gene editing. Explore this “Click & Learn” by visiting https:// www.biointeractive.org/classroom-resources/ crispr-cas-9-mechanism-applications.
Chaney’s lab students (Aubrey Ukena, medical laboratory science; Jackson Stewart, plant science; and Allison Poore, pre-med) love that they are applying research that makes them competitive in their fields. Poore explained that using CRISPR has expanded her critical thinking skills: “Critical thinking skills [are]something you can use and apply in critical research, and any research experience is incredibly valuable, because it can help you apply what is being taught. The vocabulary actually has an application.”
This application for vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and active experimentation legitimately allows for the scientific method. “A lot of labs are more cookie-cutter with guaranteed success,” Chaney says. “But this is the real-world method: using the scientific method and failure to find success. It can be messy, but the outcome is more realistic and rewarding.”
Photo Caption: Aubrey Ukena works with Vanessa Cardui butterflies in Dr. Lindsay Chaney's biology lab. Students utilized CRISPR gene-editing technology and a variety of microbiology techniques to change the color of butterfly wings.