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Hot spring Iceland

Microbial communities in extreme environments, such as this geothermal hot spring in Iceland, are dominated by CRISPR bacteria (credit Ellinor Alseth)

Exeter researchers feature in Royal Society special issue on CRISPR

Researchers based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute have guest edited and published in a new special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: “The ecology and evolution of prokaryotic CRISPR-Cas adaptive immune systems.”

CRISPR is an immune system found naturally in many bacteria. CRISPR can protect bacteria against viruses that infect them, known as phage. CRISPR is also being developed as a cutting-edge genome editing technique.

Some of the potential CRISPR applications that are currently being explored in the lab would involve the release of CRISPR into different environments – for example, CRISPR could be used to protect fermenting bacteria against phage infections, to suppress the spread of antimicrobial resistance, or to control disease vectors like malarial mosquitoes.

Making these applications of CRISPR effective requires an understanding how CRISPR behaves in an ecological context.

The special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B - guest edited by University of Exeter researchers Dr Edze Westra and Dr Stineke van Houte and featuring work by many of the leading labs in the field of CRISPR research – examines the evolution and ecology of CRISPR.

Articles in the issue also consider the question how CRISPR may be used for the benefit of human health, and the ethical challenges associated with it.

In the special issue, Dr Anne Chevallereau, Dr Sean Meaden and Dr Clare Rollie, and others found that bacteria that mutated more were less likely to evolve CRISPR.

This contributes to our understanding of how CRISPR might evolve in natural environments, and how other aspects of bacteria can affect CRISPR evolution.

Jack Common, Daniel Morley and others looked at long-term evolutionary change between bacteria and phage, and found that arms race between them led to increasingly damaging phage and resistant bacteria, but that bacteria were eventually able to “win” the race and wipe out phage.

The special issue examines when and where CRISPR is important, how this impacts bacteria and phage communities, and how this ties in with more practical and ethical considerations concerning the application of CRISPR-based technologies.

It is available online via the following link:

Date: 25 March 2019