The new faces of CRISPR

An interview with the researchers behind recent gene-editing advances

Last month MIT professor Feng Zhang’s lab published two papers in Nature and Science on new CRISPR technology that uses the Cas13 enzyme to target RNA and a new system called REPAIR that allows single base-editing. The Tech interviewed authors Omar Abudayyeh ’12, a MD-PhD student at Harvard Medical School, and Jonathan Gootenberg ’13, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, to talk about their research and collaboration.

“We went to a DJ Khaled concert when our first paper was published,” Abudayyeh said. “This time, we went to an all-you-can-eat sushi place.”

Abudayyeh and Gootenberg have become a well-coordinated team. “It’s really rare that you find someone that you can work really well with. But when you find that, it’s really great,” Gootenberg said, recalling other famous scientific duos like Watson and Crick. 

Both are well-versed in the ongoing discussions about CRISPR. “We have had the ability to edit genes for many years and so far genetic modification has not brought about designer babies or any such epidemics,” Gootenberg argued. “CRISPR just allows the process of genetic modification to be more efficient.”

This year, Abudayyeh and Gootenberg have been awarded a place on the Forbes “30 under 30 2018” list in the category of healthcare. We asked them about the award and how it impacted their lives: “It’s much like any award. It doesn’t change what you do or how you do it. The fulfilment lies in their scientific work, regardless of any awards they receive,” Gootenberg explained, “But awards open a lot of doors and opportunities down the road.” Abudayyeh brought up one such opportunity: the possibility of opening a lab of their own one day.

Further down the road, Abudayyeh wants to work on ageing and cell senescence. Both remember meeting a Nobel laureate at a conference and asking him about the prize: “He said that he wished he hadn’t won the prize, because the things that came with it took away his time to work on his science,” they recalled, adding that “there are only so many hours in a day” — and researchers all have to choose how they spend that time wisely.

In making these decisions, the quality of the mentorship that they have received has been very crucial. “Feng Zhang is an excellent mentor,” Gootenberg said, looking at Abudayyeh, who added, “I actually started working in the lab expecting to learn how to do science — but I have learned so much more.”

Both are aware of the successful road that their careers are taking, but they also remember moments of frustration and failure. “We all have those,” they said. “But it’s important to remember to persevere through them because we all have these phases and failures happen.They are important and also, in a way, necessary. Patience is the key.”