Student Corner


How a curious girl from Hawaii became a science superstar

Early childhood

Growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, Doudna was fascinated by the environmental beauty of the island and its exotic flora and fauna. Nature built her sense of curiosity and her desire to understand the underlying biological mechanisms of life. This was coupled with the atmosphere of intellectual pursuit that her parents encouraged at home. Her father enjoyed reading about science and filled the home with many books on popular science.

How Doudna was drawn to science

Doudna was in the sixth grade, her father gave her a copy of James Watson's 1968 book on the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, which was a major inspiration. Doudna also developed her interest in science and mathematics in school. While she attended high school, she was inspired by her chemistry teacher, Miss Wong.

In Hilo High School she heard a talk by a young woman scientist on how cells turn cancerous. The subject captivated her, and the scientist herself was even more of a revelation. Doudna realized “that this feminine person was clearly an incredible scientist,” she told California Magazine. “It was an important moment.”

Doudna also had a summer job in a biology lab. She relished the messy work of gathering worms and fungus specimens. And she learned to use an electron microscope - a tool that would be crucial in her later discoveries.

College Educational & Research path

After earning a degree in chemistry in 1985 from Pomona College in California, she went to Harvard University. There she worked in the laboratory of English-born American biochemist and geneticist Jack W. Szostak (who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine) and in 1989 completed a Ph.D. in biochemistry. In 1994, following postdoctoral studies at the University of Colorado under the direction of American biochemist and molecular biologist Thomas R. Cech (who received a share of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Chemistry), she joined the faculty at Yale University. In 2002 she moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she served as professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

The Discovery

(CRISPRs : Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)

Early in her career Doudna worked to deduce the three-dimensional structures of RNA molecules, which provided insight on RNA catalytic activity. She later investigated the control of genetic information by certain small RNAs and became interested in CRISPR.

CRISPR is part of the bacterial immune system. It originates with RNA sequences from invading viruses that become incorporated into bacterial genomes. The viral sequences reside as DNA in the spacers between short repeating blocks of bacterial DNA sequences. The next time the virus invades the bacterial cell, the spacer DNA is converted to RNA.

The Cas9 enzyme and a second RNA molecule attach to the newly coded RNA, which then seeks out matching strands of viral DNA. When encountered, Cas9 cuts the viral DNA, preventing the virus’s replication.

Doudna and Charpentier found that the guide RNA sequence could be changed to direct Cas9 to a precise DNA sequence. Their discovery quickly transformed the landscape of genome engineering, creating new opportunities for the treatment of human disease.

Note A. Palindromic Repeats

These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A recent one is known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9.

Note B. Jennifer Doudna’s Family

Jennifer Doudna was born February 19, 1964, in Washington, D.C., as the daughter of Dorothy Jane (Williams) and Martin Kirk Doudna. Her father received his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan, and her mother, a stay-at-home parent, held a master's degree in education. When Doudna was seven years old, the family moved to Hawaii so her father could accept a teaching position in American literature at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Doudna's mother earned a second master's degree in Asian history from the university and taught history at a local community college.

Note C. Tycoon Li Ka-shing shed tears of joy

Li shed tears of joy at the news scientists funded by him had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry and in physiology or medicine.

US scientists Jennifer Doudna - one of the two awardees in chemistry - is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor's Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. Doudna was recognized for her development of Crispr-Cas9, a fast and cheap way to alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with high precision.

Michael Houghton, one of the three prizewinners in physiology or medicine, is the director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta. Houghton won his award for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

The Li Ka Shing Foundation posted on its Facebook page yesterday that Li was delighted and cried after learning about their efforts being recognized by the award, adding that Li had supported their research in 2010 and 2011. 

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