Designer babies. Reviving the woolly mammoth. With prospective uses that sound more like science fiction than science fact, it’s no wonder that CRISPR-Cas—the versatile biomolecular tool that gives researchers the power to make precise changes to cells’ genetic codes—has captured the popular imagination.

But beyond the hype—and the thorny ethical questions—CRISPR-Cas is making waves throughout the biosciences. Inherited diseases whose genetic basis is well understood, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, could become routinely treatable. Agricultural crops could be more easily engineered with sturdier stems, better drought tolerance, and other desirable features. And across the basic-research community, CRISPR-Cas is revolutionizing what scientists can do with cells and DNA, even in contexts seemingly far removed from genome modification.

“I think of it as the equivalent of equipping your car with a GPS system,” says Jie Xiao of Johns Hopkins University. “All you have to do is program in the...

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