How CRISPR Yanked Jennifer Doudna Out of the Ivory Tower

The pioneer biochemist feels a responsibility to weigh in on ethical debates about gene editing.

Jennifer Doudna at a painting exhibition by children about the genome, in Oviedo, Spain, 2015 ( Eloy Alonso / Reuters)

Jennifer Doudna remembers a moment when she realized how important CRIPSR—the gene-editing technique that she co-discovered—was going to be. It was in 2014, and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur had contacted Sam Sternberg, a biochemist who was then working in Doudna’s lab. Sternberg met with the entrepreneur in a Berkeley cafe, and she told him, with what he later described to Doudna as “a very bright look in her eye that was also a little scary,” that she wanted to start applying CRISPR to humans. She wanted to be the mother of the first baby whose genome had been edited with the technique. And she wanted to establish a business that would offer a menu of such edits to parents.

Nothing of the kind could currently happen in the U.S., where editing the genomes of human embryos is still verboten. But the entrepreneur apparently had connections that would allow her to offer such services in other countries. “That’s a true story,” Doudna told a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “That blew my mind. It was a heads-up that people were already thinking about this—that at some point, someone might announce that they had the first CRISPR baby.”

The possibility had always been there. Bacteria have been using CRISPR for billions of years to slice apart the genetic material of viruses that invade their cells. In 2012, Doudna and others showed how this system could be used to deliberately engineer the genomes of bacteria, cutting their DNA with exceptional precision. In quick succession, researchers found that they could do the same in mammalian cells, mice, plants, and—in early 2014—monkeys. “I had all of this at the back of my mind,” Doudna told me after her panel. But Sternberg’s story about his meeting “was the moment where I said I needed to get involved in this conversation. I’m not going to feel good about myself if I don’t talk about it publicly.”

That has not been an easy journey. Doudna built her career on molecules and microbes. As few as five years ago, she was, by her own admission, working head-down in an ivory tower, with no plans of milking practical applications from her discoveries, and little engagement with the broader social impact of her work.

But CRISPR forcefully yanked Doudna out of that closeted environment, and dumped her into the midst of intense ethical debates about whether it’s ever okay to change the DNA of human embryos, whether eradicating mosquitoes is a good idea, and whether “fixing” the genes behind inherited diseases is a blow to disabled communities. Now, she’s a spokesperson for a field, and an influencer of policy. She regularly makes appearances at conferences and panel discussions, which she often shares with not just scientists but also philosophers, ethicists, and policy-makers. With Sternberg, she is the author of a new book called A Crack in Creation, describing her role in the CRISPR story.

All of this work consumes up to half of her time, taking her away from her lab of 25 people. “I find myself really struggling to maintain that balance,” she says. “But those are the cards I’ve been dealt and I feel an obligation to being involved in [the debates around CRISPR]. There aren’t that many people who know the technology deeply and willing to talk publicly about the societal and ethical issues. I have many science colleagues who don’t want to get involved. Yet it has to be done.”

Her upbringing prepared her well for this newfound role. Her father was a professor of American literature at the University of Hawaii, who was fiercely intellectual and politically conservative but never dogmatic. Her family dinner table was a place where opposing views were shared openly and debated open-mindedly. It still is: Many of Doudna’s in-laws staunchly oppose any form of genetic modification, so her work is a point of contention, even among close family. “I spend a lot of time talking to people like me, and it’s a big challenge is to reach out those who aren’t,” she says. “It’s a paradigm for the challenges in our country right now.”

With her increasing slate of talks, many of those unfamiliar opinions now seek her out. After a recent panel, a fellow speaker told her that her sister was born with a rare mutation that left her intellectually disabled and led to her dying in her 20s. “I want you to know,” the speaker said, “that if it were possible to use gene-editing to get rid of that mutation permanently, I would have no hesitation.” On the flipside, Doudna was recently interviewed by a journalist whose son has Down’s syndrome. “I want you to know,” the journalist said,” that I would never use CRISPR on him because he’s perfect just the way he is.”

“I’m very respectful of both those points of view,” she tells me. “And I’ve learned a lot about myself in these last five years.”

Much of the rhetoric around CRISPR is overblown. It is unlikely, for example, that CRISPR could ever be used to design babies to be smarter, taller, or free of conditions like obesity or schizophrenia, because such traits are the work of hundreds of genes, each with small effects. The threat of the technique can also be exaggerated in equal measure to its promise. One of Doudna’s colleagues recently attended a meeting at the Department of Energy, and was asked by a member of the Trump administration: “What about CRISPR? That’s dangerous. We need to get rid of it.”

“Well you can’t,” Doudna says plainly. “We’re in the system we’re in, and we have to deal with the technology in that context. I’ve been encouraging an international discussion because the worst thing we could do is to ignore it, and for scientists not to get involved.”