Gene editing pioneer (and Hilo High grad) has warm homecoming

Gene editing pioneer (and Hilo High grad) has warm homecoming
(Image: UH Hilo)
(Image: University of Hawaii at Hilo)
(Image: University of Hawaii at Hilo)

HILO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jennifer Doudna is a proud 1981 graduate of Hilo High School.

She's also one of the world's most recognized scientists in the world, after co-inventing CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, which is seen by many as the biggest breakthrough in biology since the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure more than 60 years ago.

The professor at the University of California, Berkeley returned to her hometown this week as the inaugural speaker for the Rose and Raymond Tseng Distinguished Lecture Series at UH-Hilo, where she made a point of honoring the place and the people that set her on the path to one of the most important discoveries in modern science.

"A lot of people now ask my why did you  become a scientist and when I think about the answer to that question a lot of it has to do with my experience growing up here in Hilo," Doudna said.

On a huge screen she showed pictures of her, her sisters and a friend in her family's Hilo carport in 1979.

Her father, an English professor at UH-Hilo, brought the family to the community when she was seven. She talked about exploring the island and wondering about the unique plants and animals she saw.

"It kind of sparked my curiosity about how these organisms had evolved to survive and thrive in this interesting environment," she said.

Her interest in molecular biology was provoked early, when at age 12 or 13 her father dropped a used copy of "The Double Helix" on her bed. She also felt encouraged by her Hilo High science teacher and by a chance to work in a UH-Hilo biology lab.

Doudna loved using the state-of-art equipment to study fungus.

"I absolutely couldn't wait to get up in the morning to get to the lab because I really wanted to do the next experiment," she told a full house at the Hilo Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

That led to Pamona College and Harvard, and her own labs at Yale and now Cal Berkeley and what she calls the unexpected discovery in 2012 of a fast, easy and precise way to edit genes.

Called CRISPR Cas-9, the process is now widely used around the world to seek new ways to cure disease and sustain the planet.

Questions from the Hilo audience included two expressing concerns about the role of CRISPR in the development of GMO products — specifically the genetic engineering of plants, which is controversial in Hawaii. Doudna said the precision and speed of CRISPR will mean faster advances in agriculture, including increasing the nutritional value and hardiness of food crops.

"That to me is a much more desirable way to make changes to plants and I also think we are going to need this technology going forward because, frankly, we are facing big changes in climate change and in pests," she said.

One local opportunity would be to protect indigenous flora.

"You face situations where you've got plants that are highly inbred so they are very susceptible to disease so imagine you could introduce a disease- resistant gene to the plant that would a potentially very good thing to do avoid using chemicals," she said.

She did criticize GMO giant Monsanto for its practice of restricting use of its GMO seed products. She said any effort to insert foreign genes into a plant should be done with great thoughtfulness.

"I think there has to be a very clear pathway and process in doing that kind of work to make sure it is done responsibly accurately and safely and then tested to make sure it is safe before it is released," she said.

Asked what possibilities for using CRISPR keep her up at night, she answered: "People forging ahead to make CRISPR babies. That's a little creepy to me, and these sort of gene drives imagining traits that are spread through populations very quickly, and how would you control that environmentally, that's something else that I worry about."

She was asked her advice for young people considering a career in science and she told the audience that they should expect to be discouraged and frustrated at times, and seek out people who encourage them, they way she found it in Hilo.

"First of all go for it. Don't  let anyone dissuade you," she said.

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