The ‘Quasi-Celebrity’ Gene Editing Pioneer

Jennifer Doudna. Photo by Michele Limina, Flickr

The controversial genome editing technique Crispr-Cas9 has sparked some fascinating recent deep-dives, including Backchannel’s “Editing the Software of Life, for Fame and Fortune” in June, and Wired’s July cover story “The Genesis Engine,” which inspired the Twitter hashtag #crisprfacts. Jennifer Doudna, the biochemist who helped invent the breakthrough tool, often helps anchor the coverage. Andrew Pollack profiled Doudna in May for the New York Times:

The discovery has turned Dr. Doudna (the first syllable rhymes with loud) into a celebrity of sorts, the recipient of numerous accolades and prizes. The so-called Crispr-Cas9 genome editing technique is already widely used in laboratory studies, and scientists hope it may one day help rewrite flawed genes in people, opening tremendous new possibilities for treating, even curing, diseases.

But now Dr. Doudna, 51, is battling on two fronts to control what she helped create.

While everyone welcomes Crispr-Cas9 as a strategy to treat disease, many scientists are worried that it could also be used to alter genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs in ways that can be passed from generation to generation. The prospect raises fears of a dystopian future in which scientists create an elite population of designer babies with enhanced intelligence, beauty or other traits.

Scientists in China reported last month that they had already used the technique in an attempt to change genes in human embryos, though on defective embryos and without real success.

Dr. Doudna has been organizing the scientific community to prevent this ethical line from being crossed. “The idea that you would affect evolution is a very profound thing,” she said.

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