Almost everyone has now heard of CRISPR — the miraculous new technique for editing DNA. But few people are aware of where it came from. It’s a story that everyone should know, because it speaks to the importance of basic research.

Before I tell the story, you should be aware that the United States basically doesn’t fund basic research anymore. Only about 10% of grants are funded, so scientists waste 90% of their time writing proposal after proposal hoping to get funded. In order to get funded, most scientists are forced to twist their research interests into some kind of applied-science pretzel to make it seem like their research is about some hideous disease that affects orphans in order to get funding.

So, CRISPR… there was this guy in Spain who got little trickles of funding now and again to study a weird bacterium that lives in salt marshes. In studying this bacterium, he eventually got it sequenced and discovered it had these weird sequences that didn’t make sense. He showed them to people and nobody could explain what they were doing there. Eventually, he discovered that the bacteria could snip out sequences from viruses and include them in its own DNA as a kind of primitive immune system to recognize if it had seen a virus before. But it was this ability to copy-and-paste these sequences of DNA that led directly to the development of CRISPR.

Nobody could ever have predicted that funding a guy to tromp around in waders in a salt marsh would lead to the most transformative genetic engineering technique thus far discovered. That’s the magic of basic research. But you can say goodbye to these kinds of discoveries because, as I say, the US basically doesn’t fund basic research anymore.

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