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The Ultimate Life Hacker

A Conversation With Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna

  • Country: United States
  • Title: Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Books: A Crack In Creation

At the age of 12, Jennifer Doudna read James Watson’s The Double Helix and got hooked on science in general and genetics in particular. Four decades later, she is a molecular biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. One of the discoverers of CRISPR, a powerful new technology for gene editing, Doudna tells the story of the current genetics revolution in her gripping new memoir, A Crack in Creation (written with Samuel Sternberg). She spoke with Foreign Affairs’ editor, Gideon Rose, in her office in Berkeley in February.

You’ve described CRISPR as a Swiss Army knife and said that it may cause a fundamental break in human history. How can a Swiss Army knife cause a break in human history?

Because it’s a disruptive technology. CRISPR is an efficient, effective tool for editing genomes—changing the code of life, the DNA in cells.

Humans have been modifying the genetics of various plants and animals for ages, so why is this new?

What makes this different is that the tool is precise and programmable. We can now change a single letter in the three billion base pairs of the human genome, for example. Ever since the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, scientists have been dreaming about being able to rewrite that code. What if you could correct mutations that cause disease or introduce new and beneficial traits into a species? Now we have a tool that can do that. And it’s getting cheaper and more accessible all the time.

Instead of breeding creatures by trial and error over many generations to get the traits you want—and not even knowing what the actual code is for the DNA responsible for those traits—now you can simply splice in a trait for a bigger nose, disease resistance, better nutrition, whatever. You can do it precisely in one generation

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