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They realised CRISPR was evidence of a completely unexpected parallel between the way humans and bacteria fight infections.
If a virus invades the cell, these Cas proteins bind to the viral DNA and help cut out a chunk.
Then, that chunk of viral DNA gets carried back to the bacterial cell's genome where it is inserted - becoming a spacer.
Vertebrate animals were thought to be the only organisms with such a sophisticated adaptive immune system.
In light of the discovery of CRISPR, it seemed some bacteria had their own version.
We're talking here about one particular gene editing technique called CRISPR-Cas, or just CRISPR.
It's relatively fast, cheap and easy to edit genes with CRISPR - factors that explain why the technique has exploded in popularity in the last few years.The animal adaptive immune system, then, isn't nearly as unique as we thought.And there's one feature of CRISPR that makes it arguably even better than our adaptive immune system: CRISPR is heritable.It will also undoubtedly attract controversy - particularly with claims that manipulating embryonic genomes is a first step towards designer babies. After all, gene editing of the kind that will soon be undertaken at the Francis Crick Institute doesn't occur naturally in humans or other animals.It is, however, a lot more common in nature than you might think, and it's been going on for a surprisingly long time - revelations that have challenged what biologists thought they knew about the way evolution works.From now on, the bacterial cell can use the spacer to recognise that particular virus and attack it more effectively. Geneticists quickly realised that the CRISPR system effectively involves microbes deliberately editing their own genomes - suggesting the system could form the basis of a brand new type of genetic engineering technology.They worked out the mechanics of the CRISPR system and got it working in their lab experiments.But CRISPR wasn't dreamed up from scratch in a laboratory.This gene editing tool actually evolved in single-celled microbes. It was only at the tail end of the 1980s that researchers studying Escherichia coli noticed that there were some odd repetitive sequences at the end of one of the bacterial genes.It was a breakthrough that paved the way for this week's announcement by the HFEA.Exactly who took the key steps to turn CRISPR into a useful genetic tool is, however, the subject of a huge controversy.