60 Minutes explains CRISPR, neglects important contributors

April 29, 2018 • 6:25 pm

Not too long ago in the Washington Post, I reviewed (favorably) Jennifer Doudna’s new book on CRISPR, A Crack in Creation, which describes for a popular audience this amazing new method of genetic engineering, a method based on DNA and enzymes that bacteria use as their immune defense against viruses.

The development of CRISPR, which in effect lets us change any gene in any way in any organism, will undoubtedly be graced by a Nobel Prize. But given the number of contributors to its development, who will share it? Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier are my prime candidates, but Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute, who helped develop their technique for use in human cells, is also in the running.

So why, when CBS’s “60 Minutes” has a segment on CRISPR, did they almost entirely ignore Doudna and Charpentier’s contributions, concentrating almost entirely on Zhang? Doudna was given a very brief nod (I don’t remember Charpentier being mentioned), but mainly just to note that she is challenging the Broad’s patent on using the technique for genetic engineering in humans. The head of the Broad, Eric Lander, who wants a Nobel for his Institute, also appears in extenso, erroneously described as “head of the human genome project” (not true; it was J.D. Watson and then Francis Collins).

As Berkeley geneticist Michael Eisen noted in his stinging but accurate website post, “The Villain of CRISPR“, Lander has engaged in a wholesale rewriting of history in favor of the Broad Institute, which he heads. He wants the Nobel for his boy Zhang, and couldn’t care less about the others. Lander’s behavior in this respect has been one of the most  self-aggrandizing exercises I’ve seen in science, and I’ve seen a lot.

So let me just say that CBS’s program was grossly slanted toward a single candidate as well as the head of his institute, giving not even one minute to Doudna and Charpentier, who deserved at least half of the time. That, combined with CBS’s incorrect naming of Lander as “head of the Human Genome project,” suggests that the network needs to work on its science programming.


41 thoughts on “60 Minutes explains CRISPR, neglects important contributors

  1. AFAIK

    Nobel Prizes are for individuals that have *discovered* something. I think if someone develops technique and get a Nobel, they have always made the discoveries underneath the methods/techniques.

    I think the Phys/med guy asserted this a while back somewhere.

    But then again, what do I know.

    1. Ummm. . . . DNA and protein sequencing? Those were methodologies that garnered prizes. They count as discoveries in that they use a bacterial system of cutting up viruses to create a novel system to edit genes, or cut them out and put new versions in. The development of this tool and demonstration of its efficacy counts as far more important than any specific application that could result.

      I believe there are many Nobels that have been awarded for developing pathbreaking techniques. Here’s from the Nobel Committee itself for the 1993 Chemistry award:

      The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1993 was awarded “for contributions to the developments of methods within DNA-based chemistry” jointly with one half to Kary B. Mullis “for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method” and with one half to Michael Smith “for his fundamental contributions to the establishment of oligonucleotide-based, site-directed mutagenesis and its development for protein studies”.

      In other words, methods.

            1. Ah great – there’s always a scientist to learn about from the Nobel history – a history that’s easy to think I know:

              “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1986 was divided, one half awarded to Ernst Ruska “for his fundamental work in electron optics, and for the design of the first electron microscope”, the other half jointly to Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer “for their design of the scanning tunneling microscope””

              Source :https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1986/

          1. “The Nobel Prize in Physics 1907 was awarded to Albert A. Michelson “for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid”.” (source : Nobel prize site). And that was 100% of the share.

            About this “discoveries” thing I heard – I think the secretary was aiming to kill off ideas that – for example – cellphones, and therefore cellphone makers/developers, are the kind of subject that the Nobel committee is interested in.

            I.e. no, Steve Wozniak – as innovative as he was – ain’t getting a Nobel prize because he never discovered anything new.

      1. That’s what the main guy said – discoveries.

        So I think those examples you give are where they could say they discovered new chemistry or made new observations.

        I was a victim of a self-constructed false dilemma a long time ago before, where I thought the GFP prize was for the *technique*, but learned – because of a podcast or something with the phys/med Nobel Prize head, it’s for the *discovery*.

        Semantics, perhaps.

          1. The semantic contortions is to make the Prize useful against the conditions set out in Nobel’s will. Nobel was famously more of an inventor than a pure scientist.

          2. Two examples that if the Nobel Committee works the same way as it has in the past, Doudna and Charpentier have nothing to worry about – Fred Sanger and Koichi Tanaka.
            Sanger’s first Nobel was for protein sequencing. 2,4 dinitrofluorobenzene is still called Sanger’s reagent, but I don’t think anyone has used the compound for sequencing proteins since the ’50s. Why? The reaction with the N-terminal amino acid does not afford an elimination as with phenylisothiocyanate (the Edman reagent), developed by Per Edman. Plus, working with Sanger’s reagent apparently induced dermatitis with anyone who used it, and was supplanted by DANSYL-Cl for simple N-terminal amino acid determinations. But Sanger won the Nobel for that since he was first. It didn’t even help that Edman was married to the head of the Nobel committee (Sune Bergström)’s sister. (Altho there’s more to that but I’ll stop there.)

            Then, with matrix-assisted laser desorption mass spectrometry, the technique that enabled large molecules to fly in a mass spectrometer, an obscure Japanese scientist, Koichi Tanaka, shared the Nobel in 2002 for having been first to describe the approach, as I recall in an abstract from a meeting. Like with Sanger, it seems that the technical details were impractical, but he was first to describe the approach that was developed into practicality by others. And Tanaka cannot be accused of having lobbied for the prize since he didn’t really know what a Nobel Prize was. (When he was informed that he had won, he said, “It’s a big prize?”)*. That Tanaka won vs. others who had developed the technique into a practical approach touched off considerable controversy.

            *Source on that, Dagens Nyheter, the main Swedish daily, Oct 9, 2002 but reading the piece now needs a subscription. The summary comes up from Googling: tanaka nobel “it’s a big prize?”

      1. FWIW my understanding of the situation confirms this, it is an alive “discussion” in Swedish media that appears now and then. (See also my comment above, though I am not so sure about the history ofNobel’s will.)

        YMMV, of course.

    2. I think CRISPR were actually discovered by Francisco Martínez Mojica in Spain, working on some bacteria from salt marshes. The ones who are now competing for the Nobel prize (and patents, i.e. money), are those who developed applications based on CRISPR.

      1. Certainly: The discovery is due to Francisco Martínez Mojica, someone why is not USA so not mentioned.
        Francisco J.M. Mojica & Lluis Montoliu, 2016. On the Origin of CRISPR-Cas Technology: From Prokaryotes to Mammals. Trends in Microbiology 24: 811-820. ” For more than 20 years, these systems were of interest only to specialists, mainly molecular microbiologists, who tried to understand the properties of this unique defense mechanism. In 2012, the potential of CRISPR-Cas systems was uncovered and these were presented as genome-editing tools with an outstanding capacity to trigger targeted genetic modifications that can be applied to virtually any organism.”
        Francisco J. M. Mojica and Francisco Rodriguez-Valera, 2016. The discovery of CRISPR in archaea and bacteria. FEBS JOURNAL 283: 3162-3169

        1. If I understand this, then I can absolutely see one of these individuals getting 1/3 of the Prize then.

          Think how Omamura won 1/3, how … the lady from Japan won 1/3 for I think antibiotic work a couple years ago.

  2. I had the exact same response tonight – I thought they ignored important people in this field and the report was highly slanted toward one group.

    Glad you made it to Chopes!

  3. Very disappointed inLander. I took an online MIT biochem/genetics course a few years ago which Lander taught. He was an excellent teacher. Ego ego ego,I guess.

  4. That is too bad. I wonder how much it is due to the person who loudly self-promotes the most being the one people remember hearing of when beginning to research for a project like this documentary. So they go exclusively to the person they remember talking about their role in the thing, rather than digging in to find the more humble folks behind the work. That said, did they not read Doudna’s book??

  5. This seems to be yet another instance of a normally (or, at least, thought to be) reputable media institution’s “research” consisting of being told what is or is not true by the most powerful and well-funded voices. I was also struck by the omissions in this segment.

  6. Quite possibly the error about citing Lander as the head of the human genome project comes in the 2nd paragraph of the Eisen article, where Eisen describes Lander as “de facto head of the public human genome project” (under President Obama).
    This suggests that people at 60 Minutes had read the article, which adds another layer of intrique to this.

    1. I noticed that too, but didn’t think it was worth mentioning. But then again, neither is this, so why am I typing a respon…

  7. I watched that story last night. Looks like 60 minutes needs a trip to the wood shed. So much for journalism on this one.

  8. I saw it, too.

    I had no idea
    as I was viewing it
    as to its reporting – nefariousness.
    Thank you, Dr Coyne, for this statement.

    I know I am naive; I know that.
    But this in science, as Dr Coyne
    states thus of ” … … and I’ve seen a lot,”
    so, so angers me.

    Ms Laurie Gaylor and Mr Barker of FFRF
    have repeatedly and recently ( in re L Krause )
    had to restate thus
    so as to help promote, well, t r u t h:
    atheists’ behaviors in all things
    must be above reproach.


  9. The answer is that someone at the Broad knows someone at 60 Minutes and provided the impetus for the story.

    The real goal of the story was not to tell people about CRISPR, it was to glorify the Broad and the people at the Broad.

    1. The real goal of the story was to achieve market share for cbs. The subject matter and story were, unfortunately, incidental to that goal.

  10. The most self-aggrandizing project in the history of science IMO is still Newton covering up the evidence that someone other than he coined the term “gravity”.

  11. I also found the report unbalanced and almost unforgivable that Jennifer Doudna got only a (somewhat negative) cameo. 60 Minutes should issue an apology. Also disappointing, Eric Lander strongly suggests that the genetic basis of most genetic diseases is and has been well understood, just waiting for a tool like CRISPR. From my look into this subject, admittedly relying on the work of other scientists, NIH research offerings and the like, I don’t believe that is true, especially in the way it was expressed. Moreover, he emphasizes the astonishing surprise that CRISPR was, seemingly unaware of forerunners like TALENS, ZnF, homologous recombination and even viral vectors starting in the 1970’s. We all might have hoped for more progress on these methods over the decades.

    It’s hard for regular folk to gauge where we are with healthcare, except that we spend more than other advanced nations (is it 18% of GDP?) with lagging results, except for the still gruesome suffering of Alzheimer, ALS, cancer etc., etc., etc. patients. Advertising campaigns featuring metastatic cancer patients living full, jubilant lives, and competing health centers all but conquering such disease bear little resemblance to the world that I and most people know – see Steve Salerno’s 4/22/18 WSJ report, “In the War on Cancer, Truth Becomes a Casualty” for a more pointed appraisal. CRISPR-Cas9 is no doubt a nearly unbelievable repurposing of equally unbelievable natural systems, and we can hardly express our thanks to dedicated researchers, all of them. Along with Doudna and Zhang, I nominate the phenomenal innovations of bacterial life for a Nobel.

  12. So very true. I was appalled by their lack of accuracy in who has been recognized for finding this phenomena in bacterial cells. Once again, women were ignored….remembering R. Franklin.

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