Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)

CRISPR is like a word processor for DNA. It allows easy and inexpensive gene editing. Edited genes are passed to future generations, making mutations permanent.

Doudna and Charpentier

Doudna and Charpentier worked on and invented the technology as a team. First, they worked on plants and, later, on animals.

History becomes murkier with the involvement of Feng Zhang. Depending on the origin story he either modified Doudna and Charpentier’s work or invented a new version that works on humans. In an initial ruling, the US patent office ruled that his work was original and awarded him a patent for the use of CRISPR in humans as opposed to plants and animals. Like similar histories in innowiki, there will no doubt be appeals and lawsuits for many years.

Charpentier and Doudna are professors at the University of California at Berkeley. Zhang is a professor at MIT.

Zhang is a founding member of The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. As of 2018, they have the sole right to use CRISPR in humans. They have announced academic researchers may use the technology freely, but commercial uses must be licensed.

There were many precursor innovations to CRISPR but most articles suggest it was Charpentier’s 2011 discovery, that the technology could guide gene selection, which is the core value of the technology.

Designer Babies

In late 2018 Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced the use of CRISPR to genetically alter the DNA of twin girls. He allegedly fabricated ethics approval and claims he edited the genes to make the girls immune to HIV. In any event, the Chinese government declared the work illegal.

Based partly on He’s claim, scientists now say CRISPR is not as accurate as they initially believed. They say it works “more like an ax than a scalpel” for genetic manipulation. In any event, some form of CRISPR is likely to eventually have an enormous impact.

Human Genome Project

The Human Genome Project mapped the human genome, the DNA map of human life. It enables future genetic technologies that can cure disease, preemptively find problematic genes, or even allow genetic manipulation (designer babies).

Francis Watson was the initial lead. He is the Nobel Prize winning co-discoverer of DNA sequencing. As the project gained in size and scope, Collins took over.

Sulston led the UK part of the project that sequenced about 1/3rd of the genome. Venter worked for the Celera unit of Applera Corp., which was creating their own map.

There was collaboration and co-innovation.

Watson and Sulston have been awarded Nobel Prizes while scientists buzz that it’s only a matter of time until Collins is awarded the Nobel Prize. Many argue Venter also deserves a Nobel Prize. However, the prize committee has a history of shorting people working for private companies, no matter their merit. [See Raymond Damadian.]

The Human Genome Project, first published 2001 then published in a nicer form in 2003, took about a decade and cost about $1 billion USD. By 2020, industry sequencing leader Illumina predicts a full-body sequence will take about an hour and cost $100, and that time and cost will continue to decline.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) turns a tiny bit of DNA into a much larger amount which can subsequently be sequenced.

In 1983, Mullis figured out a way to multiply the tiniest piece of DNA by orders of magnitude, making millions of copies. This is how the smallest bit of DNA, from bacteria, viruses, historical artifacts, or even crime scenes, can be multiplied and analyzed. Mullis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993.

PCR and DNA profiling go together like Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Created by Alec Jeffreys, profiling identifies people or animals and their relationship to one another. Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

PCR is the impetus for the science fiction book and movie Jurrasic Park. In that book, minuscule amounts of dinosaur DNA create living dinosaurs. Many wrongfully convicted innocent people are free due to PCR/DNA. Furthermore, the technique helped identify countless violent criminals.

Mullis is an eccentric, moving between serious scientific work and unusual ventures. He owns a business selling jewelry containing artificially grown DNA from famous people (ex: Elvis). He also started businesses to help the immune system identify and auto-mutate cells to enable, for example, a universal flu vaccine. Despite his scientific background, he’s both a climate-change denier and also denies the well-proven link between HIV and AIDS.

Cetus paid Mullis a $10,000 bonus for his work and sold the patent to Roche for $300 million. Predictably, much patent litigation ensued which, for the most part, Roche/Cetus won.