Once again, labs all over the world clamored to use the tool. But this time Zhang deposited the DNA coding for CRISPR at a small nonprofit called Addgene, located a mile down the road from MIT. Now, he no longer had to personally FedEx CRISPR tools. Scientists could order them straight from Addgene’s website for $65 a pop.
Addgene’s whole purpose is to share bits of useful DNA. As a graduate student in biology, its co-founder Melina Fan found herself on the opposite end of Zhang’s sharing problem: She waited months for other labs to send DNA, only to sometimes get the wrong one. A central DNA repository would be much more efficient than emailing individual labs and deciphering hand-labeled vials. So in 2004, she and two others—her brother, Kenneth Fan, and her husband, Benjie Chen—launched Addgene as a nonprofit sharing service. The company collects, manufactures, stores, and sends out DNA parts to academic labs and other nonprofits.
Addgene grew steadily at first, reaching more and more scientists every year. Then came CRISPR. “The year of CRISPR we took a very large increase,” says Joanne Kamens, Addgene’s executive director. The company has shared CRISPR components from Zhang’s lab more than 42,000 times, with more than 2,000 institutions in 62 countries. They account for four of the top 10 all-time most popular items available on Addgene’s site.
“If Addgene didn’t exist, our entire lab would be fulfilling these orders,” says Zhang. The nonprofit has also helped CRISPR become one of the fastest-spreading biotechnologies ever. (Other labs have also deposited versions of CRISPR with Addgene. That notably includes Jennifer Doudna’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, which is locked in a patent dispute with Zhang and the Broad Institute over CRISPR. CRISPR components from Zhang’s lab have been shared much more widely, at least through Addgene.)
Today, CRISPR accounts for about 20 percent of Addgene’s orders. But the company, whose full catalogue contains more than 60,000 DNA parts, is about more than the spread of CRISPR alone. The remixing of DNA from different species is now a routine part of molecular-biology research—whether that’s using algae proteins to study mouse brains or jellyfish proteins to make cancer cells glow in the dark. Addgene has made it easier to get all of these parts.
Jason Ikpatt, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, who also moonlights as a hip-hop producer, told me, “I can’t help but notice the similarities between an Addgene repository and a downloadable sample pack of pre-recorded sounds.” In his own research, Ikpatt has ordered DNA from Addgene to insert genetic material from prairie voles into mice, in hopes of understanding what makes some voles monogamous.
The two single most popular DNA components of all time on Addgene are isolated parts of an HIV virus that could, in turn, be used to insert, say, human genes into a mouse to study their function in disease. How’s that for remixing? “At the time, many people thought it quite strange that one would use a lethal pathogen for something like that,” says Didier Trono, the virologist who created the manipulated virus. “But it turns out be a marvel.” The underlying technology has since been widely used to manipulate the genes inside of cells as well as living animals like mice and rats. The DNA that Addgene distributes contains only a few components of HIV, so it cannot infect anyone.