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A thought-provoking look at the gene-editing revolution

In 2016, I called The Gene: An Intimate History one of my favorite books of the year. The book’s author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, decided to write it largely because of a huge advance that had received far less attention than it deserved: Biochemist Jennifer Doudna and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier’s discovery of “genetic scissors” that allow scientists to cut any DNA sequence with incredible precision. Doudna and Charpentier’s discovery earned them the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The “scissors” Doudna and Charpentier discovered are known as CRISPR (pronounced like “crisper”), which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. The CRISPR system is a sophisticated defense that bacteria evolved to disarm invading viruses, similar to the way fungi developed penicillin to protect themselves against bacterial infection. The CRISPR system makes it much easier for scientists to alter human and other genomes in beneficial ways, such as repairing gene mutations that cause awful diseases like cystic fibrosis.

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