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.