3-D Interactive Discovery Niche

Set in discrete spots throughout the Town Center, the technology-enhanced discovery niches are intended to attract the attention of casual visitors and serve as a destination for planned events. Faculty members, students and private sector collaborators are encouraged to submit ideas and content for the niches to ensure that the themes reflect emerging science.

The DNA Hijackers

Suspect a gene is making your wheat crop vulnerable to pests? Snip it out. Wonder if a genetic modification could save the life of a patient ravished by Alzheimer’s disease? Mutate a fruit fly’s DNA and test what happens.

It’s possible, thanks to revolutionary new technology making it easier for scientists to target and ‘edit’ chromosomal DNA for the first time.

The gene editing system that could transform medicine, biology and agriculture as we know it is called CRISPR-Cas, and it’s currently featured in exquisite detail at the 3-D niche in the Town Center.

In essence, CRISPR-Cas is a DNA cutting tool. It involves two main components originating from the bacterial defense system. CRISPRs (short for clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) are sequences found within the DNA of E. coli and yogurt bacteria that help them ward off viruses.

It works like this: When a virus invades, part of its DNA gets absorbed into the bacteria’s CRISPR sequences. When the same kind of virus tries to infect again, the bacteria recognizes the foreign invader and deploys a scissor-like enzyme called Cas. The enzyme slices open the viral DNA, killing the invader.

Researchers at UW–Madison and around the world have harnessed the CRISPR-Cas dynamic duo to target DNA sequences of interest, cut them open at a precise spot and sometimes insert new genetic material. In other words, breaks caused by Cas enzymes enable scientists to hijack a cell’s natural DNA repair machinery and trick the cell into incorporating desired changes.

The system has been used to delete a gene that made bread wheat susceptible to powdery mildew, edit liver cells in mice to cure them of metabolic disease, and erase viral genes in HIV-infected immune cells.

Visitors to the niche can learn more and watch an animated video of the Cas enzyme in action.