Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Jennifer Doudna, Biochemist & Pioneer in CRISPR Technology

Jennifer Anne Doudna was born in Washington, D.C. in 1964, and she was fascinated by science from a young age. Don Hemmes, a biologist and family friend, allowed her to study worms and mushrooms at his lab when she was a child. Her father was a professor of English literature, and her mother taught history at a local college. They fostered Jennifer’s interest in science by giving her books and taking her to museums.

When she was 7, the Doudna family moved to a small town in Hawaii called Hilo. She felt ostracized and alone when she was growing up because everyone around her was of Polynesian or Asian descent, and as a result, Doudna turned to books and science. At the age of 12 or 13, she read a book that her father had left in which James Watson described his discovery of the DNA double helix, and when Doudna was a teenager, she attended a presentation by a young female scientist at the Honolulu Cancer Centre about how normal cells become cancerous. These two events first sparked her passion for science.

Doudna studied at Pomona College in Claremont, California and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Biochemistry in 1985. She went on to receive her Doctorate in Biochemistry from Harvard in 1989. As a student in Jack Szostak’s laboratory at Harvard in 1988, she and Szostak discovered that RNA aids in protein synthesis. A few years later, she became a postdoctoral fellow at Thomas Cech’s laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and they discovered the structure of a specific type of RNA called Tetrahymena Thermophila. In 1994, she became an assistant professor at Yale University, and in 2002, she was designated as Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Doudna’s most impactful accomplishment was the discovery of how the bacterial defense mechanism worked in viruses and the reengineering of CRISPR/Cas-9 in a laboratory for editing genes. With fellow scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier, Doudna discovered the CRISPR defense mechanism that allowed Cas-9 to cut DNA. Along with other scientists, both of them realized replicating this mechanism in a laboratory could be useful in improving gene editing.

Jennifer Doudna earned many awards for her incredible work, including the Beckman Young Investigators Award in 1996 for her research concerning the design and structure of RNA and the Alan T. Waterman Award in 2000 for her research that led to a better understanding of RNA’s function. In 2014, Doudna and her partner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, received the Gabbay Award for their work with CRISPR/Cas-9, a genome-editing technique, and in 2015, the two received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their work in reengineering CRISPR/Cas-9 as ‘molecular scissors.’ Most recently, in 2020, Doudna received the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science for her discovery of genome technology that could aid in disease treatment.

Jennifer Doudna’s research into CRISPR will undoubtedly shape the future of genetics and treating chronic diseases. Many people argue that she should be awarded the Nobel Prize for her contributions to the field of biology. Currently, Doudna advocates for the ethical use of the CRISPR/Cas-9 technique and believes, “The power to control our species’ genetic future is awesome and terrifying. Deciding how to handle it may be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”

by Chethana Madireddy

References

“Jennifer A. Doudna Quotes (Author of A Crack in Creation).” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8418300.Jennifer_A_Doudna.

“Jennifer A. Doudna.” Jennifer A. Doudna | College of Chemistry, chemistry.berkeley.edu/faculty/chem/doudna.

“The Life and Work of Jennifer Doudna.” WhatisBiotechnology.org, www.whatisbiotechnology.org/index.php/people/summary/Doudna.

Melissa Pandika, special to C&EN. “CRISPR Pioneer Jennifer Doudna Shares Her Outlook for the Groundbreaking Gene-Editing Tool.” Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society, 10 July 2020, cen.acs.org/articles/95/i17/CRISPR-pioneer-Jennifer-Doudna-shares-her-outlook-for-the-groundbreaking-gene-editing-tool.html.

Melissa Pandika, special to C&EN. “CRISPR Pioneer Jennifer Doudna Shares Her Outlook for the Groundbreaking Gene-Editing Tool.” Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society, 10 July 2020, cen.acs.org/articles/95/i17/CRISPR-pioneer-Jennifer-Doudna-shares-her-outlook-for-the-groundbreaking-gene-editing-tool.html.

Pollack, Andrew. “Jennifer Doudna, a Pioneer Who Helped Simplify Genome Editing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 May 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/science/jennifer-doudna-crispr-cas9-genetic-engineering.html.

“RNA Biology at UC Berkeley, HHMI.” Doudna Lab, doudnalab.org/.

Russell, Sabin. “Cracking the Code: Jennifer Doudna and Her Amazing Molecular Scissors.” Cal Alumni Association, 10 Dec. 2014, alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/winter-2014-gender-assumptions/cracking-code-jennifer-doudna-and-her-amazing.

Snyder, Bill. “UC Berkeley’s Doudna Named to Receive Vanderbilt Prize.” Vanderbilt University, news.vumc.org/2020/03/18/uc-berkeleys-doudna-named-to-receive-vanderbilt-prize/.

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