60 Minutes explains CRISPR, neglects important contributors

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.



  1. Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    They are about to do a story on my boss, Charlie Yarish. Let’s see if they get that right

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink


    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.

    • Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      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.

      • Craw
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        Electron microscope.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          EM what – the actual instrument? Who?

          • Derek Freyberg
            Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

            Ruska – 1986.

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted April 29, 2018 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

              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/

            • Posted April 30, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

              It was about time!

        • colnago80
          Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:28 am | Permalink

          Albert Michelson for the invention of the interferometer.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:36 am | Permalink

            “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.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        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.

        • Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

          Yes, semantics, I think. It takes every bit as much imagination and creativity to develop something like CRISPR as to find out how olfactory genes work.

          • Torbjörn Larsson
            Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:22 am | Permalink

            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.

          • Hempenstein
            Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:44 am | Permalink

            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?”

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      The “guy” I refer to is:


      He was the secretary until 2014

      I probably won’t find the broadcast he was on where I heard his quite firm assertion about discoveries.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:26 am | Permalink

        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.

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      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.

      • peter
        Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        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

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:30 am | Permalink

          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.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Even in Science it seems it’s not what you know but who you know.

  4. Dave Larson
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    CRISPR set to music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k99bMtg4zRk

    I’d be curious to know your impression.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I know it well! It builds and builds on you.

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 4:21 am | Permalink

      Acapellascience. Lovely.

  5. Howard Neufeld
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    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!

  6. Merilee
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    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.

  7. Posted April 29, 2018 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I read Doudna’s book. Taken it at face value, she and Charpentier deserve the Nobel exclusively.

  8. yazikus
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    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??

  9. BJ
    Posted April 29, 2018 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    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.

  10. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    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.

    • M
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:05 am | Permalink


  11. Dominic
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Could care less? Surely could NOT care less?

    • John Black
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      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…

    • Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Yes, of course. I’ve fixed it, thanks!

  12. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 7:00 am | Permalink

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

  13. Blue
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    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.


  14. drew
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    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.

    • Jim batterson
      Posted April 30, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

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

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    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”.

  16. AshD
    Posted April 30, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    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.

  17. Jeanie
    Posted May 2, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    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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