6 July 2022 – In 1992, Francisco Mojica found curious DNA repeats in salt-loving archaea while carrying out the first sequencing at the University of Alicante, Spain, to investigate how they adapt to changes in salinity for his PhD. He got hooked and tried to uncover their function for a decade. The breakthrough came when his group found that the spacers separating the repeats in E. coli matched a phage sequence. “We realized that an efficient infection of a strain containing a spacer with a virus matching it had never been reported. This was true for plasmids and representative strains of the main taxonomic groups of archaea and bacteria, so it was an acquired immune system. It was incredible!” says the newly elected EMBO Member.
Mojica also coined the term CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, when he suggested it to a scientist who wanted to agree on a common name. Initially it was not his favourite option, as it sounds like the Spanish word for ‘annoy’, but importantly it was not found in PubMed yet. Recalling his ground-breaking publication from 2005, Mojica explains: “There was no way to foresee any of the wonderful applications in biotechnology outside of prokaryotes that were developed later. These had no relation to the function of the repeats.” But the knowledge of the CRISPR mechanisms and components has been crucial for all developments from 2012 onwards.
Asked about promising practical applications, Mojica says: “The most promising application of CRISPR today is in agriculture: modifying crops to prevent the use of pesticides, enable them to grow in stress situations, grow faster, or become more nutritious.” He prefers to work in basic research. Today, as a senior lecturer in microbiology and group leader in Alicante he studies one of the six types of CRISPR that lacks the equivalent of the nuclease Cas9. It is almost completely unexplored, and his group tries to find out what it is doing. Mojica comments on his election to the EMBO Membership: “I feel very proud that I become an EMBO Member. For me it is a recognition of my basic research and its repercussions outside of my field.” He is looking forward to this opportunity to participate in the promotion of life sciences.