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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The gene-editing tool CRISPR is moving toward the market, promising better tests, disease cures — and maybe even a woolly mammoth.

The big picture: CRISPR is already a historic scientific achievement, but we're just now entering the moment when it will begin to impact patients and possibly the planet.

Driving the news: The San Francisco-based CRISPR startup Mammoth Biosciences — whose co-founder Jennifer Doudna shared a Nobel Prize for chemistry last year for her role in discovering the gene-editing tool — announced $195 million in funding late last week, valuing it at more than $1 billion.

  • "The fundamental platform we're building at Mammoth is using CRISPR as a toolbox system" for diagnostics and treatments, says Trevor Martin, Mammoth's co-founder and CEO.

How it works: CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — are bits of genetic code that bacteria have evolved to locate and destroy viruses.

  • Mammoth first focused on using the tool to develop diagnostic tests for diseases by programming CRISPR sequences to seek out a particular stretch of RNA or DNA in a virus.
  • The relative ease of programming CRISPR opens up the possibility of cheap and accurate tests that could diagnose multiple pathogens simultaneously — one reason why the company received funding from the Defense Department in January to develop a point-of-care test that could detect up to 10 pathogens at once, as well as a larger, lab-based test that could detect up to 1,000.
  • Mammoth has also received funding from the NIH to scale up a disposable, handheld COVID-19 test.

What they're saying: Right now with COVID tests, "you have to decide whether you want a highly accurate test that might take a while, or do you want to be really easy and accessible, but not as reliable," says Martin.

  • CRISPR-enabled COVID tests that offer both speed and reliability "are the long-term promise of CRISPR diagnostics," he adds.

Between the lines: The first and most widely known CRISPR enzyme is called Cas9, but Mammoth has also been developing new enzymes like Cas12, Cas13 and Cas14.

  • These enzymes are as little as a third the size of Cas9, which means they can reduce unwanted off-target effects during treatments and can be more easily delivered to the body via viruses or nanoparticles.
  • These new CRISPR enzymes have been patented by Mammoth, which helps them avoid a patent battle like the one the University of California-Berkeley (where Doudna works) and MIT’s Broad Institute fought to determine who owns the rights to the original Cas9.

What to watch: Another new company wants to use gene editing for an even more audacious goal: bringing back an extinct animal.

  • This week the startup Colossal launched with the plan to use CRISPR to add 60-plus genes from the extinct wooly mammoth into the cells of an embryo of an Asian elephant, the mammoth's closest living relative.
  • If Colossal succeeds, it plans to reintroduce the re-engineered mammoths to their original habitat in Siberia, which the company's co-founder, Harvard geneticist and CRISPR pioneer George Church, has argued could help reduce the release of CO2 from the rapidly warming tundra.

The catch: Colossal faces major scientific challenges — including building an artificial womb that can gestate a 200 lb. hybrid mammoth fetus — as well as ethical questions about whether it's humane to bring back and set loose a long-extinct animal.

  • Yes, but: Gene editing could emerge as a powerful tool for conservation by allowing scientists to edit endangered species to better resist pathogens or adapt to a changing climate.

The bottom line: CRISPR is poised to fundamentally change both humans and other species, which means that "we as a society have to actually choose what we want to do," says Martin.

Go deeper

18 hours ago - Health

5 times as many police officers have died from COVID as from guns since pandemic began

Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for police officers even though members of law enforcement were among the first to be eligible to receive the vaccine, CNN reports, citing data from the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Why it matters: Nearly 476 police officers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, compared to the 93 deaths as a result of gunfire in the same time period, according to ODMP and CNN.

5 hours ago - Technology

TikTok drives new nostalgia economy

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Older brands, trends and technologies are making a comeback as younger consumers desperately chase slower, less chaotic times.

The big picture: TikTok's algorithm makes it easy for flashback items to resurface and quickly go viral both on its platform and eventually on other social networks.

Updated 8 hours ago - World

Reports: Up to 17 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince earlier this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children were among up to 17 American Christian missionaries and their relatives kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, the New York Times first reported.

Details: The missionaries had just left an orphanage and were traveling by bus to the airport to "drop off some members" and were due to travel to another destination when the gang struck in Port-au-Prince, Haitian security officials said, per the NYT.