Jennifer Doudna

Photo by Richard Sever

It is so important for scientists to be willing and able to communicate their scientific findings to the general public, especially when it comes to complex and controversial topics like gene editing, and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna has it down to a science! Doudna was at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory last week for the 84th Symposium, this year centered on RNA Control and Regulation.

Photo from Doudna Lab website

Hundreds of scientists from around the world came to the meeting to discuss aspects of RNA biology and, while most of the meeting was designed for scientists to share fresh, unpublished data with one another, the symposium had one talk, the Dorcas Cummings lecture, designed for the general public – a way for CSHL to help give back to the community.

This year’s speaker was Dr. Jennifer Doudna. In 2012, she and French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier showed that components of a bacterial immune defense system could be adapted for use in precise gene editing. Bacteria use the CRISPR/Cas system as an adaptive immune system – they take pieces of the DNA of viral invaders and insert them into a “running tally” of invaders in their own genome. That way, if that same virus tries to invade again, they can make RNA from those pieces that’s used to guide a pair of “DNA scissors” – a protein called Cas – to cut the invader’s DNA. Doudna and Charpentier realized that if you could get CRISPR to bind to a guide RNA of your design you could get it to target any gene – even in non-bacterial cells. And if you provided an alternative piece of RNA, cells could swap them out.

Doudna described this technology and its implications to the local community in the Cummings lecture. One of my favorite parts was the Q & A session at the end. The audience understandably had a lot of questions and concerns – about the science, the ethics, and her predictions for where the field is going – and Doudna was happy to answer them all. It was a great privilege to be able to hear her speak – twice! (Actually I’m even luckier because I got to hear her talk when she was on campus two years ago.)

CRISPR isn’t the only thing Doudna’s a pioneer of – as a graduate student, she, together with her advisor Jack Szostack, was the first to solve the structure of a ribozyme – a type of RNA that acts “protein-like” by catalyzing (speeding up) chemical reactions. This was only the second structure of RNA ever determined (the first being a tRNA)

Doudna was born in Washington DC and moved to Hawaii at the age of seven. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California’s Pomona College, followed by a PhD in biochemistry from Harvard, where she worked in the lab of Jack Szostak. After that, she carried out postdoctoral research in the lab of Thomas Cech at the University of California in Boulder.

In 1994 she took an assistant professorship position at Yale and was subsequently promoted to professor before leaving in 2002 to move to the University of California, Berkeley where she remains today as Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Professor of Chemistry. She is also an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) & the Gladstone Institutes. Her many honors and prizes include election into the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and receiving the prestigious Kavli Prize.

In her lab, Doudna continues to study the basic biology and diversity of CRISPR/Cas systems (different types of bacteria have different versions of it) and it was fascinating to hear her describe the wonderous biology she’s continuously finding in nature. Another amazing thing – she is advising 15 undergraduate students in her lab this summer! I’m sure those students will have a time they’ll never forget!

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