Jennifer Doudna faces an uncommon challenge for a scientist at the top of her form and the forefront of her field: While she watches her work produce "breathtaking" advances in the understanding of human biology, she's struggling with its ethical implications for individuals, for humankind, and for science itself. Doudna, 53, is one of the most important pioneers in the breakthrough gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. Working with Emmanuelle Charpentier, now director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Doudna and her lab associates unveiled groundbreaking CRISPR applications five years ago in the journal Science. By vastly simplifying the cutting and splicing of DNA sequences in the laboratory and in living organisms, CRISPR has revolutionized our understanding of how genes work. It also has reduced the barriers to eliminating mutations that cause disease and introducing others that can change the very physique of living creatures -- creating pest-resistant plants, mosquitoes that can't carry malaria, super-muscular livestock or -- within a few years -- pigs whose internal organs can be transplanted into human hosts without the risk of rejection.
There certainly was reason for celebration at UC Berkeley on Feb. 8, when the U.S. patent office announced it would award UC a key patent for CRISPR, a groundbreaking technology for gene editing. The announcement capped a nearly six-year journey through the patent thickets for the university and Jennifer Doudna, the Berkeley scientist generally credited as the main inventor of CRISPR. UC had filed its patent application on March 15, 2013. Since then, the university had received two other CRISPR-related patents, but this one was all-encompassing, covering tools for editing DNA molecules "in any setting, both in vitro and within live cells … [and] across every cell type," as UC stated in its press release. All this racing to get patents is not really advancing the science or commercialization.
This story begins nearly four billion years ago, when the Earth was just another rock in just another solar system. In a pool of sludge on that rock, something astonishing happened. A long stringy molecule found a way to copy itself. Similar molecules would later carry the code that would enable life forms to grow, digest, run, breathe, read, launch rockets to the Moon. But for now, that molecule only knew how to do a single, important thing – to reproduce. This was the moment that life emerged. Since then, as each living organism has multiplied, the codes of life have altered by the tiniest increments generation after generation, stretching across time. Most of these mutations have had little impact. Very, very occasionally, they have been extraordinarily useful. The sum of millions of minuscule modifications over billions of generations has given some organisms the ability to survive in water, land, ice or the desert. They have helped them to beat disease, to be stronger, faster, fly. Across the aeons of biological time, this process has led one particular organism – us – to grow large brains, develop opposable thumbs and communicate complex ideas. We've mastered fire, tools, technology. In the great span of evolution, this transformation happened a mere split second ago.
Two years after biochemist Jennifer Doudna helped introduce the world to the gene-editing tool known as Crispr, a 14-year-old from New Jersey turned it loose on a petri dish full of lung cancer cells, disrupting their ability to multiply. "In high school, I was all on the Crispr bandwagon," says Jiwoo Lee, who won top awards at the 2016 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for her work. "I was like, Crisprize everything!" Just pick a snippet of genetic material, add one of a few cut-and-paste proteins, and you're ready to edit genomes. These days, though, Lee describes her approach as "more conservative." Now a sophomore at Stanford, she spent part of her first year studying not just the science of Crispr but also the societal discussion around it.
Headlines from Silicon Valley sometimes read like mythology, fantasy, or science fiction. "First human-pig'chimera' created in milestone study" revives images of the Greek mythological beast (part lion, part goat, part serpent). "No Longer a Dream: Silicon Valley Takes on the Flying Car" describes the Kitty Hawk, whose name pays homage to the Wright brothers with a subtle nod to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And "Oh Great, Now Alexa Will Judge Your Outfits, Too" tells of an innovation that combines a photoshoot and a fashion critique in the privacy of your closet. Novelties like these make last year's driverless cars and personal shopper bots look quaint.