The gene tinkerer

Chase Beisel is dedicated to a research topic that is more emotional than almost any other: CRISPR-Cas. This new genetic tool can make the therapy of cancer, AIDS or hereditary diseases possible.

For researchers like Chase Beisel, the cryptic term CRISPR-Cas is much more than the sophisticated system used by bacteria to defend themselves against virus attacks: It is home to countless genetic engineering possibilities that Beisel hopes to exploit. His goal is to understand the diversity of CRISPR-Cas systems in order to be able to use them against genetic diseases or multi-resistant pathogens, for example. The social dimension of his research plays a decisive role for him: “CRISPR is a wonderful example of basic research that has already led to something that has enormous effects on society,” he says. “However, we must never neglect social exchange about gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR, because in the end our work is useless if society is not prepared to accept it.”

Since early 2018, the US-American has headed the “RNA Synthetic Biology” research group at the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) in Würzburg, a location of the HZI in cooperation with the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg. The chemical engineer and microbiologist works according to the principle of French researcher Louis Pasteur, a pioneer of basic translational research: “In line with Pasteur‘s approach, I work in problems that both grant fundamental knowledge but also tackle a societal issue.”

A research career was not predetermined to Chase Beisel from the very beginning. As a teenager, his declared goal was to become a professional drummer. On his father‘s recommendation, however, he decided to concentrate on chemical engineering. A good choice, as he thinks today: “In chemistry I can fully contribute my personal inclinations. I can fiddle, develop novel solutions, be creative.” After his studies, he obtained his doctorate in Christina Smolke‘s laboratory at CalTech (USA) on RNA engineering. RNA molecules are transcriptions of genetic information and perform a variety of tasks in each cell, including controlling regulatory processes. “Nature is able to use these RNAs for its own purposes, which engineers find very difficult – if not impossible.” After his doctorate in 2009, Beisel studied the properties of regulatory RNAs in the laboratory of Gisela “Gigi” Storz at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA, and finally came across the CRISPR-Cas system as one of many recently discovered functional RNAs.

Currently, Beisel is involved in an international project that aims to genetically modify mosquitoes, the vectors of the malaria pathogen Plasmodium, in order to make them less susceptible to plasmodia infection or to prevent them from multiplying. “I see this as one of CRISPR‘s greatest opportunities to benefit society directly, because millions of people worldwide can benefit from it,” says Beisel.

Even though his career as a drummer had to give way to research, Chase Beisel has not given up music. He always found ways to perform even while pursuing a scientific career, such as playing the djembe with his church, and is also finding ways to play here in Germany. At the beginning of 2018, when he, his wife and three daughters made the leap from the USA to Würzburg, he was still a little uneasy. But he has never regretted this step: “It was really easy to make new friends and build us a social network.”

Author: Nina-Vanessa Littwin

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