Women’s History Month: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race

Dr. Jennifer Doudna, co-discoverer of CRISPR/Cas9, was the keynote speaker at a symposium commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Intramural Research Program at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).
Photo credit: Ernesto Del Aguila, NHGRI

If you aren’t aware of women’s contributions to science, I suggest you read the latest book by Walter Issacson: CODE BREAKERS: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race.

Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier are the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They have also won previous international awards in 2015 and 2018.

The book is timely not only because of the Noble Prize, but because it has compelling insights into the development of COVID vaccines. The story opens last March with Doudna and her husband (also a research scientist) driving from San Francisco to Fresno California to retrieve their son early from a robotics competition because of worries about the virus. The boy is naturally upset, but on the way home the lockdown is announced and competition cancelled. The book centers on how Doudna and her team responded to the crisis.

Issacson recounts Doudna’s reading of James Watson’s “Double Helix” as a teenager, ignoring Watson’s condescending remarks about biologist Rosalind Franklin’s looks. Instead she sees Franklin as her idol, realizing that she could be a scientist as well as a wife and a mother.

Jennifer Doudna has now reached the top of her profession with research into genetic engineering of human DNA. Basing their research of defenses pioneered by bacteria in their age – old battle with viruses, the CRISPR-Cas 9 for the first time allows for snipping and altering of bits of DNA. This breakthrough could help us outsmart and control future pandemics.

Realizing the importance of this ability to the fight against COVID 19 the CRISPR researchers acted early last year to develop rapid test procedures and vaccine strategies and openly provided them to the whole scientific community which spurred development of current vaccines.

The book also explores the ethical and moral issues this research raises. Doudna does so herself in a book written in 2017 with Samuel Sternberg, a former student, “CRACK IN CREATION- Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.”

Categories: Womens History


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