Jennifer Doudna gives the 2018 Ullyot lecture.

Jennifer Doudna gives the 2018 Ullyot Lecture.

Book Club: Cracking Creation with Jennifer Doudna

CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology is remaking the world. How do we manage its potential harms and benefits?

Hello again from the Science History Institute Book Club! Our latest selection was A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. Doudna delivered the 2018 Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture at the Institute on November 16, and if you weren’t able to join us for the lecture, either in person or via the webcast, I have good news: we recorded it and you can watch it online. But our book club took the opportunity to do some in-depth reading about CRISPR-Cas9 before the lecture.

It’s a rare technology that remakes the world, but the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system is one of them. Although it has been around only for a few years, it’s already causing a revolution in how we think about treating and curing disease. How does it work? Scientists create a strand of DNA to replace a faulty DNA sequence. They attach the new DNA to a protein, which will act like a pair of scissors when it finds the faulty DNA. Faulty DNA out (snip snip!), new DNA in, and voila! It’s a game changer in terms of precision and will likely open the door to cures for diseases that have a genetic basis.

While treatments using this technology may still be in their infancy, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Strains of wheat are now invulnerable to such killer fungi as powdery mildew, and engineered staple crops may become crucial for feeding Earth’s ballooning population. CRISPR is quick, precise, inexpensive, and so simple that high school students are using it. You can even buy a kit to try it in your own home.

We are on the cutting edge of a revolution—a revolution brought to us in large part by Jennifer Doudna. In 2012 Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were the first to propose that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used for programmable editing of genomes, which is now considered one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology. Looking beyond the scientific contributions of her work, Doudna also seriously considers the ethical implications and has organized several conferences to discuss ways to ensure that CRISPR-Cas9 is used for good. (Not everyone is taking the ethics seriously. The week after Doudna’s Ullyot Lecture a scientist in China claimed to have engineered twin baby girls to be resistant to HIV. The response among scientists has been negative, to say the least.)

A Crack in Creation is divided into two parts. The first gives an overview of the history of genetic engineering, including Doudna’s work in the field. The second looks at applications of the technology as well as potential ethical quandaries. We were impressed by how freely Doudna gives credit to other scientists whose work became foundations for her own (very unlike Charles Darwin, as you may recall if you read Darwin’s Ghosts along with us). And while some of the technical stuff was a little over our heads, we had a lively discussion about what CRISPR-Cas9 might mean for the future. For example, if we’ve driven a species to extinction and we now have the power to bring it back, do we have a duty to do so? What if only rich people can afford to edit their babies, leading to a permanent upper class of healthier, wealthier people? Or, as pointed out by Doudna and Sternberg on page 233, “Using gene editing to ‘fix’ things like deafness or obesity could create a less-inclusive society, one that pressures everyone to be the same—and perhaps even encourages more discrimination against differently abled people—instead of celebrating our natural differences.” Should we be worried?

Our book club had the chance to discuss A Crack in Creation with Doudna while she was at the Science History Institute. She spoke with us about the writing process, her hopes for CRISPR-Cas9, and the importance of communication between scientists and the public. We were grateful for the opportunity to meet her.

Here are a few more of our discussion questions:

  1. Genome editing is technical, complicated stuff. Did this book clarify it at all for you or muddle it up even further?
  2. Doudna and Sternberg are both scientists, not authors. How do you think they did at writing for the general public?
  3. In her discussion of CRISPR-edited animals on page 137, Doudna says, “Regulators and consumers … will need to decide which matters more: the end or the means; the product or the process which creates it. … If CRISPR and related technologies can eliminate inhumane practices like dehorning, reduce antibiotic usage, and protect livestock from deadly infections, can we afford not to use them?” What are your thoughts?
  4. Which practical use of CRISPR technology excites you the most? Which worries you the most?
  5. Humans have been changing the genetic makeup of plant and animal species for centuries. On pages 147–148 Doudna wonders, “Should we refrain from influencing our environment with this new tool even though we haven’t shown such restraint in the past? Compared to what we’ve done to our planet already, whether intentional or not, is CRISPR-based gene editing less natural or more harmful?” Thoughts?

Following along with us at home? Then I have some holiday reading for you. Our next book is Polio: Am American Story by David Oshinsky. It should be an interesting juxtaposition to see how we fought disease in the 1950s, given that we just read a book about how we’ll fight disease in the near future. See you in January!

Sarah Reisert

is the Institute’s awards program manager.