WiSW: Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on CRISPR gene editing. She is a professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, president and chair of the board of the Innovative Genomics Institute, a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and an adjunct professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Doudna grew up in Hawaii. Both of her parents held masters degrees and taught at a university level. In college Doudna briefly doubted her ability to make a career of science and considered majoring in French instead. However, her French instructor advised her to stick with science. Doudna graduated from Pomona College in 1985 and got her Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology from Harvard Medical School in 1989. Her Ph.D. dissertation was on a system that increased the efficiency of a self-replicating catalytic RNA.

In 2012, Doudna proposed that enzymes from bacteria that control microbial immunity (CRISPR_Cas9) could be used in the programmable editing of genomes, this method ultimately earned her the Nobel Prize, as it is one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology. 

After the discovery that CRISPR system could be used to cut and edit DNA, the ethics of changing an organism’s function in this way quickly came into question. Doudna advocates for the use of CRISPR in somatic gene editing, those edits which do not get passed onto the next generation. Doudna cofounded Caribou, a company that commercializes CRISPR technology. 

Early in her career, Doudna worked to discover the biological function and structure of RNA enzymes (ribozymes). In trying to understand ribozymes, Doudna realized their molecular mechanisms needed to be able to be seen. In 1991 she crystallized ribozymes for the first time in order to determine their three dimensional structure. Her lab at Berkley still focuses on understanding biological processes involving RNA. Today Jennifer Doudna is leading a COVID-19 testing center at UC Berkley, which processes more than 1,000 patient samples per day.

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