BLOG / Women's History Month: Jennifer Doudna

Women's History Month: Jennifer Doudna

In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in order to call attention to the many contributions of women in society. Each week this March, we’re highlighting the lives of some of these great women in blog posts by some by of our notable employees who talk about women who inspired them. This week, Savannah Dearden, MA, spotlights Jennifer Doudna for her innovative work in developing CRISPR-mediated genome editing.

Once in a while, a scientific breakthrough captures the public's imagination, and when that happens, the scientist at the heart of that discovery is often celebrated all over the world. That's the case with Jennifer Doudna, and her revolutionary work on CRISPR Cas-9, which is that rare bio-molecular technique that has broken through into mainstream media and popular culture. CRISPR-Cas9 has stirred excitement and captured the imagination of the scientific community and general public alike. It even co-starred in a recent film alongside the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the movie “Rampage.”

The world is rightfully excited about CRISPR. This groundbreaking technique not only enables scientists to add or remove genetic material with much greater precision but also much faster and cheaper than any previous method. Moreover, it works efficiently in virtually all cell types and organisms tested. This not only enables molecular biologists to do more complex genetic experiments but also provides a pathway towards true synthetic biology by design.

Before she became one of the inventors of CRISPR gene editing techniques, Doudna was born and raised in Hawaii. She studied biochemistry at Pomona College then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology from Harvard Medical School. Early in her scientific career, she researched the structure and function of enzymatic RNA molecules, also called ribozymes. Notably, while working at Yale, her research group was able to crystallize ribozyme molecules for the first time. This enabled the three-dimensional structure of the enzyme to be characterized and compared to other catalytic proteins. She made her CRISPR discoveries while working at UC Berkeley researching the Streptococcus bacterial “CRISPR” immune system. This system works with guide RNA molecules and an auxiliary protein, called Cas9, to cut up specific regions of viral DNA. With her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Doudna helped show that specific guide RNAs could be “fed” into the system to purposefully target regions of DNA, enabling targeted gene deletion or editing.

CRISPR has already been used by scientists across the world to edit the genomes of everything from seeds to human embryos. Much of this research involves using this technology to create more drought and disease resistant crops. In fact, it is already being applied to edit the genes of the food we eat. A CRISPR-edited non-browning mushroom recently passed through USDA inspection and will likely be found on store shelves soon. Doudna and her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier, even founded a company called Caribou Biosciences to put CRISPR to use in the ag/seed trait sector.

I had the opportunity to listen to Jennifer Doudna, one of the lead scientists in the development of this revolutionary gene-editing technique, at the University of California - Santa Barbara with several Apeel Sciences coworkers not too long ago. She stood in front of a sold-out auditorium of students, scientists, and community members, casually chatting about her monumental scientific discoveries. While her body of work is extraordinary, what impressed me most about her is her humility and relatability. She conveys true respect and awe for the biochemical machinery she discovered and characterized. Moreover, she is very aware and outspoken about the potential social and moral implications of her discoveries. With the ability to so easily and purposefully change the genome of an organism, including a human, she emphasized the critical importance of this ethical discussion keeping pace with the technology.