By James Brown, Education and Public Engagement Manager, Biochemical Society
To Hoover. To Google. To CRISPR. As Jennifer Doudna pointed out at the launch of her new book, A Crack in Creation, once your invention has become a verb, you know you’re onto something big. And CRISPR (or CRISPR-Cas9) is certainly big; it doesn’t seem like hyperbole to describe it as a ‘game-changer’ in molecular bioscience as there can hardly be an area of biology that hasn’t been impacted by the use of this new gene editing tool.
Talking about her role in its invention in front of a curious audience at the Royal Institution, Doudna was joined by Adam Rutherford in a discussion that covered future applications, practical considerations, potential risks, ethical considerations and her feelings of personal responsibility. Because of course these issues cannot be debated solely by the academic community; it is a development of such monumental potential that it is likely to become as well known amongst non-scientists as topics such as GM foods, gene sequencing, or even vaccinations. So now would seem like a good time to think about how we talk about CRISPR. How can we describe its importance? What will the public perception of CRISPR be? Where do we draw the line in using CRISPR? What narratives will be useful in framing these debates and ensuring an engaged and productive conversation?
In terms of capturing the popular imagination, the invention and applications of CRISPR offer a lot of exciting and rich stories. The vast range of potential uses of CRISPR mean that there are myriad ways to discuss how it might shape and impact the future. The public opinion around topics such as GM foods, gene therapy, and even vaccines(!) show how important it is that we represent the opportunities and risks in a realistic and honest manner. There is a clear and present danger that if not handled correctly, the use of CRISPR will be seen as overly controversial and ‘unnatural’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are all issues that have occurred to Doudna. For better or worse, her name will always be associated with the invention of CRISPR technology and it is clear that she feels some burden of responsibility for how it will be used and received in the wider world. Will she be remembered as an Oppenheimer or a Fleming? The introduction to her book alludes to this; in a dream she is engulfed by a vast wave that washes her away, events overtaking her and snowballing beyond her control. The speed of innovation is something that she comes back to often in her talk. We may have increased the pace of fundamental discoveries, but are we giving ourselves enough time to analyse and evaluate the risks and benefits? With the publication of this book, Doudna positions herself as wanting to be at the centre of these debates, perhaps as a way of regaining some form of control.
The debates about the use of CRISPR will be complex and require carefully considered nuance, but public support and engagement will be a fundamental part of this process. But that’s not all CRISPR has to offer, the story of its creation also gives us a number of narratives which can be of use in wider conversations around the value and processes of scientific research, particularly for younger audiences.
As with many inventions of similar global impact, the invention of CRISPR wasn’t planned or expected. A wonderful example of the value of basic research, Doudna explained how “no one saw it coming” from a relatively esoteric area of biological research: the bacterial immune system that allows bacteria to fight off viral infection. Driven by curiosity and passion, as opposed to a search for wealth and fame, this shows how funding for basic research in all areas of science is crucial and that adding to our understanding of the universe is never a wasted effort.
During the discussion with Rutherford, Doudna was at pains to emphasise the global and collaborative nature of scientific discovery. Science, she explained, is social and interactive. The advantages of large institutes and international conferences are that they enable the sort of cross-fertilisation and idea-sharing that innovation requires. The meeting and subsequent collaboration of Doudna with Jill Bamfield, a geobiologist at University of California, Berkley is not one that you could deliberately engineer, but their chance meeting is what started the ball rolling. Equally, a conference in Puerto Rico gave the opportunity for Doudna to meet Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French-born biochemist working at Umeå University in Sweden, who would be instrumental in determining the mechanism of how to use CRISPR as a genome-editing tool. The creation of CRISPR was a truly global affair. For many non-scientists, this social and collaborative aspect to science is unknown, so we should take the time to recognise and celebrate the inclusive nature of modern science as often as we can.
Overall, the discovery of CRISPR is a great story. It offers a contemporary example of outstanding scientific work, demonstrates the importance of diversity and equal opportunities (with three female principal characters, the movie version will be sure to pass the Bechdel test), and offers up a starting point for debate on a whole range of topics including human enhancement, genetic modification, disability rights, intellectual property and cultural attitudes to science. For many, science can often seem a somewhat anonymous and mysterious process, so we should take every opportunity to share the stories of those who have helped shape the field.
This summer the Biochemical Society’s public engagement team are touring our ‘Scientific Scissors’ activity which facilitates debate about the ethical considerations of genome editing. You can find out more about this activity on the public engagement page of the Society’s website.