When Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered the most powerful DNA editing technology we know of, CRISPR-Cas9 — something MIT Technology Review described as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century” — they weren’t looking for a world-transforming DNA editing tool.
Doudna tells Business Insider that they were studying the system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses, something that might be considered basic research, science pursued just for the sake of greater understanding.
Their project was a curiosity-driven initiative to understand a biological mechanism, not an attempt to create or uncover something immediately useful.
But then: “One day … we realised, gosh, this could be a very powerful technology,” says Doudna.
They noticed that the system bacteria use to shut down viruses had an uncanny way of targeting specific sections of virus DNA — and that, with the correct programming, this system could seek out any section of DNA and slice it up. Not only that, if accompanied by other coding material, this process could also replace one section of DNA with a new section of DNA.
They realised they’d found an incredibly precise tool.