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.”