Once in a while, we have an invention that changes the world completely, permanently and irreversibly. With the atomic bomb came the ability to destroy the entire human race in an instant. With penicillin, deaths from paper cuts became obsolete. With satellite TV, stories from around the world entered our living rooms.
This century’s great contribution to the timeline of discovery is CRISPR-Cas9 – which can not only change life as we know it but life itself. With Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technology, we can edit the genomes of organisms as if it were a Word document. We can enable immune cells to attack cancer cells with greater aggressiveness, and possibly cure Huntington’s disease or even muscular dystrophy with astounding ease.
Intoxicated biologists are raving over it at parties, science-fiction producers are basing entire plots on it, and policy-makers are struggling to regulate its use. But at the heart of this incredible story of CRISPR, lies the story of Jennifer Doudna – the woman who helped make it a reality.
With sun-like hair and bright blue eyes, Jennifer Doudna stood out in the tropical landscape of Hilo in Hawaii, where she spent most of her childhood. Scientists are often made and not born, and for Doudna – being surrounded by volcanoes, lush forests and remote beaches probably had something to do with it. It was a time when the internet was yet to cause a mass unemployment of libraries and encyclopaedias, so Doudna had to find all her answers between the lines of books. With a fondness for the life sciences, Doudna followed the road signs to Harvard, where she attended graduate school.
Grappling with tough questions about the origin of life, Doudna’s initial work focused on a molecule called RNA. She guessed that her work may find a modest mention in biology textbooks, but it was probably not going to flip the world on its back.
During her time at the University of California, Berkely in the early 2000s, Doudna first met CRISPR, an area of research that was gaining momentum many years after its initial discovery. CRISPR is a region found within the genomes of many bacteria, but it is often seen with tiny wedges of viral DNA in between. Why would bacteria stick bits of viruses, one of their biggest predators, into their precious genetic code?
The answer to this could make for a great crime novel – bacteria do this for self-defence. Upon encountering a deadly virus, the bacterium chops it up and stores a bit of it within this CRISPR region to remember its enemy by, as if it is maintaining a molecular database of notorious criminals. Should this virus infect the bacterium again, it manufactures assassins armed with a copy of this stored viral fingerprint, which use it to recognise and destroy that virus.
At a conference in early 2011, she met Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist working in Sweden, who had also been studying the oddities of CRISPR. Amused by each other’s findings, they started a scientific long-distance relationship across the Atlantic, involving a truly international merger of ideas, technologies and scientists, and of course – copious sessions of Skype. They came up with an idea that was going to take the world by storm.
What if they could programme this CRISPR machinery to go after any gene? The molecular assassins can be trained to find any gene, not just a viral one, if they were handed an engineered but matching guiding copy for that gene. Together, the Doudna and Charpentier labs established a step-by-step strategy to do exactly this in an explosive paper that spread around the scientific world like wildfire.
Almost instantly, scientists were using this tool to edit genes in everything from crop and cow to mice and man. So far, it has succeeded in treating cases of leukemia, NEMO deficiency syndrome, and is being used to make the HIV virus less virulent.
When Doudna understood the true impact of this technology, she “felt a growing unease because the science was moving faster than anyone outside the scientific community can appreciate.”
What if CRISPR can be used to resurrect an extinct species by modifying the genome of its present-day relative? What if a chicken can be turned into a dinosaur, and an elephant into a woolly mammoth? What if we can create a completely new creature? What if we can influence the shape and shade of our babies, bestowing upon them gifts of native intelligence and Herculean strength? It is all possible, but only in time.
Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of medicine, writes, “If you believe that made-to-order babies are possible, you oversimplify how genes work.”
When Chinese scientists used CRISPR on human embryos, Doudna was plunged into the middle of this heated debate about the ethics of gene editing.
She said, “I realised that I have to get involved in this conversation. I cannot leave it to others to do this. How do we, as a species, use a technology like this safely?”
Doudna has called for a global pause on the use of CRISPR to create altered embryos until an appropriate regulatory framework is set up. A change like this would cascade down many generations, and essentially alter evolution.
Doudna was launched into stardom overnight. She and Charpentier were awarded $3 million each, at an event funded by leading Internet entrepreneurs. One of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world, her advice and expertise is sought at global conferences hosting scientists, ethicists, and policy-makers. She gives talks about the use and misuse of CRISPR in universities around the world.
Following the creation of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, Doudna had to take on a new role in society, as if she had acquired the same status as a newly created superhero.
She reflects, “Frequently, I’m not only away from my lab, but also my family. Sometimes, I feel an incredible sense of sadness. I think about the before and after of my life. My life has profoundly changed and it will never go back.”
Like Doudna’s life, this technology has changed the story of our society in more ways than one, and in ways that are probably more revolutionary than satellite TV or penicillin. We must thank Jennifer Doudna, for propelling the human race into a new age of possibilities, and for ignoring the umpteen tweets and numerous efforts that tell women to stay away from science.