A team of scientists has adapted a CRISPR protein that targets RNA (rather than DNA) as a rapid, inexpensive, highly sensitive diagnostic tool with the potential for a transformative effect on research and global public health.

The RNA-targeting CRISPR enzyme was harnessed as a highly sensitive detector that can indicate the presence of as little as a single molecule of a target RNA or DNA molecule. The researchers used an amplification process that relied on body heat to boost the levels of DNA or RNA in their test samples. Once the level was increased, the team applied a second amplification step to convert the DNA to RNA, which enabled them to increase the sensitivity of the RNA-targeting CRISPR by a millionfold, all with a tool that can be used in nearly any setting.

The technology could one day be used to respond to viral and bacterial outbreaks, monitor antibiotic resistance, and detect cancer. The scientists demonstrate the method’s versatility on a range of applications, including detecting the presence of Zika virus in patient blood or urine samples within hours. One of the most urgent and obvious applications for this new diagnostic tool would be as a rapid, point-of-care diagnostic for infectious disease outbreaks in resource-poor areas.