The subject of this essay is Addgene, a nonprofit organization that serves as a repository for viral capsids and plasmids. Addgene provides researchers with an incredible array of components that are indispensible for the operation of CRISPR. Discovered in 1987, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a powerful immune system that evolved millions of years ago to protect bacteria, enables the insertion and deletion of arbitrarily selected genes into, or the wholesale destruction of, the areas of a chromosome that are expressed to create proteins, enabling the easy modification of any given genome. However, the discovery was not useful until Addgene, and other similar services, came into being in 2004. Addgene provides a crucial link in the chain of technologies required to operate CRISPR, and their service is indispensable to humanity’s fights against disease, aging, environmental pollution, and a host of other issues facing the world today.
Founded in 2004 by Melina Fan, Kenneth Fan and Benjie Chen, Addgene was born from these scientists’ realization that their research, and others in their field, was severely hampered by the great difficulty of obtaining capsids and plasmids. Starting as a small network, by which scientists could deposit and obtain these crucial components, Addgene expanded over time to become the near-comprehensive repository for thousands of various proteins that they are today. Addgene charges a nominal fee for any given protein to support their operations, unlike many organizations who demand eye-popping premiums for valuable biotechnology. Their success and proliferation has reached such a scale that it is eminently possible for anybody to utilize their services.
Prior to the existence of Addgene, such proteins had to be obtained, if obtaining them was possible at all, by either manual manipulation of a virus in a lab, or utilizing academic networks to find somebody that had one, and hoping they were willing to provide it. Requiring a full lab setup to extract pieces of infectious disease samples severely slowed research into CRISPR, and made home use all but impossible. The difficulty in obtaining these proteins also cast a shadow on CRISPR research, because reproducing a study was difficult or impossible without access to them. These limitations are a primary reason that, although CRISPR was first discovered in 1987, it took a generation before the potential applications and relative simplicity of this powerful tool started to come to light (Zimmer). Even with their services beginning in 2004, it still took another decade for broader awareness of CRISPR’s vast power to spread.
To solve this existential problem with CRISPR research, Addgene acts as a repository for researchers investigating CRISPR to submit their capsid and plasmid samples, and provides them for a nominal fee. These proteins are still obtained by the means described above; research scientists write their papers, extract the proteins and perform their research, and submit their proteins to Addgene’s repositories. Due to the fact that once obtained, such proteins tend to be vast in number, a single scientist’s submission can be drawn upon, not without limit, but in sufficient quantity that it should be a long time until the supply runs out. Maintaining a facility to store these proteins is no small feat; such proteins have greatly variant requirements for long-term storage. For example, every protein requires a medium, and must be stored at a specific temperature or temperature range, which can vary from frozen solid, to room temperature, or even human body temperature. This also complicates delivery. To order a protein, one submits a research paper to Addgene, describing the research to be conducted, the expected outcomes, and describing the proteins required. Addgene then provides the required proteins by an appropriate shipping method.
In making these proteins readily available, Addgene also creates the risk that they may be used in the production of bioweapons. While requiring a detailed description of the protein’s intended use is a partial safeguard against this, any researcher capable of developing such a weapon would also be quite capable of producing a wholly fictitious paper in order to justify their ostensible need for it. This risks the evolution, so to speak, of an arms race in biological weaponry; while CRISPR could be used to create exceptionally lethal and destructive diseases, or insert deleterious mutations across populations, it also enables anybody to relatively easily develop cures or counteractions to such maleficent applications (Gronlund). This has yet to occur, which is a miracle in and of itself. On the whole, the ready availability of these proteins provided by Addgene brings both significant risk and significant potential, and so far, humanity hasn’t destroyed itself with it yet.
Addgene does not actively seek small monetary donations. Rather, they operate on the nominal fees charged for providing their proteins, and finance their broader development by the sponsorships of multiple larger organizations. Getting involved is easy: order some proteins! Addgene’s mission is the enhancement of scientific research into CRISPR, and by conducting one’s own research and utilizing their services, Addgene, along with all of humanity, benefits. It is to be just a short time now before almost all diseases are readily curable, thanks to the services of Addgene, similar organizations, and the efforts of CRISPR researchers, and there are plenty of discoveries yet to be made.
Addgene is just one service in a constellation of many such services, each of which provides the various biotechnologies required to operate CRISPR. By patronizing Addgene and purchasing capsids, plasmids, or simply by downloading DNA and conducting research into it, one can make their contribution to any number of fields. Would you like to cure cancer? Perhaps you would prefer to clean up an oil spill. Maybe generating oodles of free methane is more your bag! Whatever it is you would like to accomplish, if it can be done by manipulating DNA with CRISPR, you will likely find yourself placing an order with Addgene eventually. Thanks to Addgene, tools that would otherwise be locked away behind a university’s lab doors, and months of careful work, are readily available. Never before in history has such advanced technology been made so freely available. Start your research and secure your place in history today!
Zimmer, Carl. “Breakthrough DNA Editor Born of Bacteria.” Quanta Magazine, 6 Feb. 2015, https://www.
Gronlund, Kirsten. “Genome Editing and the Future of Biowarfare: A Conversation with Dr. Piers Millett.” Future of Life Institute, 12 Oct. 2018, https://futureoflife.