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Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna: Gene editing could make a better future

At Wednesday’s press conference, Doudna covered a range of issues

doudna sits in a journalism studio with no people in it. There is a face on teh screen in the foreground.
In October, professor Jennifer Doudna took questions from the media at a socially distanced press conference after winning the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism facilitated a video news conference and Q&A session with UC Berkeley’s Nobel Prize winner, Jennifer Doudna, this morning. Watch it here. (UC Berkeley video)

Rapid advances in gene-editing technology have a transformative potential to help cure disease and feed the world, but scientists must assure that the tools are not used for unethical purposes, new UC Berkeley Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna told reporters today.

Following this morning’s announcement that she had won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Doudna detailed the promise of the CRISPR-cas9 technology at a Berkeley press conference, held remotely during the coronavirus pandemic and livestreamed for a global audience. She hailed the collaboration of her colleagues, both at Berkeley and internationally, for the work that won the world’s highest honor in science.

Her research began, and has continued, “with the vision of bringing genome editing to bear on problems facing humanity, whether they be in biomedicine or in agriculture,” Doudna said. In particular, she added, she and her team have worked “with an eye toward affordability, accessibility and sustainability” to develop “technology that will go from a laboratory tool to a standard of care someday in genetic disease, or a way to create the kinds of changes in agricultural products that will be necessary to meet the challenges of climate change.”

The Berkeley biochemist said she received news of her prize when a journalist’s phone call woke her in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday. Doudna shares the honor with colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany, for their pioneering work on CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing breakthrough that is moving rapidly to produce new knowledge and new applications across a range of fields.

It was Berkeley’s second Nobel win this week and 25th in history. On Tuesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists, including Berkeley professor emeritus Reinhard Genzel, for the discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Doudna covered a range of issues — the critical moments that preceded the discovery, the need for businesses that can translate discoveries into broadly available tools and what she called the “amazing” importance of the Berkeley research environment in supporting such work.

But Doudna cautioned that, even with the promise of the CRISPR gene-editing technology in medical care and agricultural innovation, the field needs to be guided by a global commitment to the ethical use of these tools. She pledged to continue her work in that area.

She and campus leaders cited the milestone significance of the first Nobel Prize in the sciences to be shared by two women. The prize also is the first Nobel to be awarded to a woman on Berkeley’s faculty, and it arrives during a year when the campus is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Board of Regents’ decision to admit women students.

Doudna won warm praise from campus leaders who introduced her at the press conference and reflected on the broader importance of the win.

“It’s reassuring to know that there’s still joy in the world,” said Michael Botchan, dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters and Science. “Given the chaos that we now have with the pandemic and our political system and our fight against racism, … I’m proud of the human race, in the end. The arc of history is definitely going up.”

Chancellor Carol Christ said Doudna had achieved an “extraordinary discovery.” With Genzel’s Nobel in physics, she added, it makes a powerful statement about the world-class range and impact of Berkeley scholarship.

“In just two days,” Christ told reporters, “we have scientists awarded the Nobel for beginning to understand the black hole at the center of our galaxy — the farthest reaches of the cosmos — and (for) the most minute mechanisms in what the Nobel Committee called ‘the code of life.’ I think that’s extraordinary, and I’m so grateful that the University of California has an extraordinary role in these discoveries, and particularly for the women on the faculty.”

The press conference was organized by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the campus’ Office of Communications and Public Affairs. It was attended by journalists from top publications in California, the U.S. and around the world.