Nautilus

The Unbearable Weirdness of CRISPR

Francisco Mojica in a lab at the University of Alicante in Spain.Photograph courtesy of the University of Alicante.

When Francisco Mojica was 25, he supported himself by tracking bacteria in the Mediterranean off the coast of a tourist haven in southeastern Spain. At the time, he was a doctoral candidate at the University of Alicante, where he focused on a much stranger microorganism than those he was searching for in the ocean: Haloferax mediterranei, a single-celled creature that thrives in water so salty it kills almost everything else. “Even sea water is not salty enough for them,” he says.

To understand this peculiar creature, Mojica, his advisor, and another graduate student were painstakingly sequencing bits of H. mediterranei DNA. This was the early 1990s—pre-Human Genome Project, pre-modern genomics—and it was frustrating work. When Mojica found bizarre, stuttering repeats of DNA bases, he assumed they’d screwed up somehow

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