Skip to main content
Move the World.

The DNA editing tool known as CRISPR has taken medical research by storm, offering up potential treatments from stem cells to gene therapy. But scientists have invented a new use for CRISPR: rapidly diagnosing anything from cancer-causing mutations to viral infections with the ease of an at-home pregnancy test or a blood sugar meter. This could revolutionize diagnosis of things like Ebola and Zika, especially in field hospitals and remote locations, like the Congo.

How It Works: Unlike older methods of gene editing, CRISPR allows you to make extremely specific changes to DNA—the enzyme cuts whatever and wherever you tell it and nowhere else. This makes it valuable for finding and deleting malfunctioning DNA, turning off viruses, or inserting new genes.

But you can also tweak the system a bit to quickly diagnose diseases without a big, expensive lab setup. CRISPR's ability to hunt down very specific strands of DNA can be combined with a fluorescent molecule that literally lights up when it finds its target, like a virus or a cancerous mutation. Combined with proteins called Cas12 or Cas13, after CRISPR homes in on its target, it then cuts a "reporter" molecule, causing it to glow. They've dubbed these systems DETECTR and SHERLOCK.

Why It's Awesome: This is really exciting for lots of reasons. Unlike many diagnostic tools, which are often just looking for indirect signs of cancer or infection (like proteins or antibodies), these tests are identifying specific strands of actual viral DNA, making them much more reliable. They can also distinguish between different strains of the same virus. Recent advances have made SHERLOCK almost four times more sensitive, meaning it can detect infections earlier, and also tell you (roughly) how far along those infections are. Another paper explains how doctors could customize the test in less than a week to test for a specific new mutation they're worried about.

Why It Could Change Everything: The best part is that scientists have figured out how to put the tests into strips of paper, like a pregnancy test, which could be mass produced, stored at room temperature, and used in the field with no need for special instruments. As one paper put it, CRISPR has created a "portable, rapid, and quantitative detection platform" for viruses from HPV to Dengue and Zika. It could be especially valuable at the front lines of Ebola outbreaks in Congo and West Africa, allowing fast and early diagnosis of potential infections, and also telling doctors what strain they're dealing with, which could tell them what vaccine to distribute.

Up Next

Dispatches
Tiny Satellite “Constellations” Could Bring the Entire World Online
Tiny Satellite “Constellations” Could Bring the Entire World Online
Dispatches
Tiny Satellite “Constellations” Could Bring the Entire World Online
SpaceX is out in front, but the race for global satellite internet is getting crowded.

SpaceX is out in front, but the race for global satellite internet is getting crowded.

Dispatches
Living Drugs May Be the Key to Beating Genetic Disease
Living Drugs May Be the Key to Beating Genetic Disease
Dispatches
Living Drugs May Be the Key to Beating Genetic Disease
Engineering bacteria in the microbiome could fix previously untreatable genetic disorders.
By Pedro Belda Ferre

Engineering bacteria in the microbiome could fix previously untreatable genetic disorders.

Dispatches
A Hidden Benefit of Banned Antimicrobial Soap: Treating Cystic Fibrosis Infections
A Hidden Benefit of Banned Antimicrobial Soap: Treating Cystic Fibrosis Infections
Dispatches
A Hidden Benefit of Banned Antimicrobial Soap: Treating Cystic Fibrosis Infections
The FDA banned triclosan from hand soap, but new research shows that it can supercharge old antibiotics.
By Chris Waters

The FDA banned triclosan from hand soap, but new research shows that it can supercharge old antibiotics.

Dispatches
Scientists Finally Get a Look at Enzyme that Protects DNA
protect DNA
Dispatches
Scientists Finally Get a Look at Enzyme that Protects DNA
We finally have a detailed picture of an enzyme that could play a key role in fighting both aging and cancer

We finally have a detailed picture of an enzyme that could play a key role in fighting both aging and cancer

Coded
This Research Team Wants to Hack Your Car
This Research Team Wants to Hack Your Car
Watch Now
Coded
This Research Team Wants to Hack Your Car
What happens when an SUV going 75 miles-per-hour down a highway is hacked from a remote computer?
Watch Now

What happens when an SUV going 75 miles-per-hour down a highway is hacked from a remote computer? Two researchers in Pittsburgh want to make sure we never find out. As cars have become more automated, they’re becoming more hackable. But the only way to stop car hacking is to actually learn how to hack into cars and uncover their vulnerabilities.

The Shipping Containers Used for Conversations
The Shipping Containers Used for Conversations
Watch Now
The Shipping Containers Used for Conversations
Would you talk to a stranger on the other side of the world?
Watch Now

Frequently seen being hauled by semi-trucks on the highway or stacked on the decks of cargo ships, these shipping containers are now being used in a different way, as a portal to connect people across the globe and facilitate conversation. Step inside and you can be instantly connected to someone on a different continent, with whom one can talk and share music, thoughts, and ideas. The creator of Portals hopes this...

The New Space Race
A Delivery Service for the Moon
A Delivery Service for the Moon
Watch Now
The New Space Race
A Delivery Service for the Moon
This startup wants to offer the world insanely accurate shipping to the moon.
Watch Now

Landing on the moon has always been an inaccurate pursuit. But Astrobotic has fixed that problem. The company’s unique GPS system allows it to land spacecraft within meters—rather than kilometers—of the intended target. And now they’re using the tech to offer the world’s first delivery service to the moon.

Science
How to Rebuild a Broken Brain
How to Rebuild a Broken Brain
Science
How to Rebuild a Broken Brain
The unbelievable story of the day Jordan Riley was declared brain dead and his journey of re-learning how to be human.
By Mike Riggs

The unbelievable story of the day Jordan Riley was declared brain dead and his journey of re-learning how to be human.