One of Crispr’s Creators Faces Her Fears
In terms of impact on the future of the human race, no invention in this still-young century may measure up to the gene-editing tool Crispr. “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” existed in nature as an antiviral defense system in bacteria; their potential for genetic editing fascinated scientists but went largely untapped until 2012, when Jennifer Doudna, a microbiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier co-published the first findings showing that Crispr, interacting with the protein Cas9, could edit the genes of a bacterial cell.
When people refer to Crispr now, they talk about wiping out disease, resurrecting woolly mammoths, and fashioning designer babies. Such implications fascinate and torment Doudna, and she writes about them movingly with Samuel Sternberg, a biochemist and former research colleague, in A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). Doudna’s memoir is partly an attempt to sustain her voice in the debate over Crispr’s practical and less-practical uses and partly an effort to secure her legacy.
What’s jeopardizing it is a legal battle between Berkeley and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard over patent rights to Crispr-Cas9. Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, was the first to use the Crispr-Cas9 process in a cell with a nucleus—the kind that forms the building blocks of life—and won the patent rights, a decision Berkeley is appealing. Doudna doesn’t denigrate Zhang’s work in the book, but he doesn’t come up a lot, and she makes clear that she published first. Her play-by-play of how she uncovered Crispr’s potential—a fascinating, if technical, read—serves as a counterhistory to an account that Broad Institute President Eric Lander published last year that downplayed Doudna’s contribution.
In reality, Doudna and Zhang seem to have been simultaneously working on parallel paths, a modern-day version of Edison and Tesla. Doudna references a different inventor, however, saying she relates to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s ambivalence about his role in the great scientific advance of the last century, the atomic bomb. More jarring still is a nightmare she describes having in which Hitler, wearing a pig mask, tells her he’s excited to learn about her new invention. “I could scarcely begin to conceive of all the ways in which our hard work might be perverted,” Doudna writes. “Had I created a monster?”
It’s a question she explores in the second half of the book, plunging headfirst into Crispr’s bioethical minefield. She strikes a balance between handwringing over the possible abuses of gene editing and excitement about how it might save lives. Doudna is generally supportive of using Crispr to supercharge plants so that they stay fresh longer or pack more nutrition (a technique that’s safer than the one used to make traditional genetically modified foods, she says, because Crispr manipulates genes, rather than inserting foreign ones); she’s even enthusiastic about genetically engineering pigs and cows, not just for food but for organs that can be used in surgeries on humans. Once skittish about wiping out genetic maladies, she’s come around slowly to the case for eliminating scourges such as Huntington’s disease.
Others see a slippery slope to eugenics, but Doudna has faith Crispr won’t lead to that—even as she calls for greater vigilance and responsibility. “For most of our species’ history,” she writes, “humans have been subjected to slow, often imperceptible evolutionary pressures exerted by the natural world. Now we find ourselves in the position of controlling the focus and intensity of those pressures.” Doudna’s Hitler nightmare appears to be a thing of the past, and she wants to keep it that way.