CRISPR Wars: The Microbes Strike Back

On January 14, Eric S. Lander published an article, The Heroes of CRISPR, in the journal Cell. This article was then thrust into the spotlight by enraged twitter enthusiasts who thought that the article downplayed the roles of both the University of California’s Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Germany.  However, all of the subsequent articles detailing the controversy surrounding the paper have failed to contact and interview a set of key players involved in CRISPR-Cas9. This key set of players, collectively known as “The Microbes”, has reached out to me via quorum sensing to explain their side of the story and their reaction to the article.

“We were a bit shocked and enraged after reading the article at how little credit that we, the Microbes, were given. Dr. Lander describes a ’20-year journey’ in his article, but we’ve been developing the CRISPR-Cas9 system for much longer than that, millions of years longer!”

Millions of years! Given the current climate of research, how difficult it is to get funding and the lack of first author papers they have published, I can definitely understand their anger.

“We developed the CRSIPR-Cas9 mechanism as a dynamic security system to keep out our pesky competitors, the Viruses. We never imagined that it would one day be used for gene editing, if we had we’d have utilized it on humans a long time ago to make them our slaves.”

I laughed. They didn’t.

What the world may have looked like when the Microbes started working on CRISPR.
What the world looks like now according to Dr. Lander’s paper. Whether or not the Microbes had anything to do with the disappearance of Greenland, Iceland and Latin America is currently under investigation.

Desiring a change of topic, I inquired as to how close the Microbes were to the researchers involved in engineering CRISPR-Cas9 for use as a genome editing tool.

“One might say that we are intimately close to the researchers involved. We are familiar with every aspect of their research, we know where they live, what they eat and what they did last summer…”

Cue to me looking around for the closest door through which I can escape. Since they sounded like they were, uh, such good friends, I asked how the Microbes felt about the allegations that the roles of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were downplayed.

“We understand how they must be feeling and lament that their roles were downplayed. Many of our members are from underrepresented minority groups, and we are familiar with being overlooked or unable to thrive in various media and culture situations. Just like us, they should have been included in the paper which we propose be re-titled to ‘The Heroes, Heroines and Microorganisms of CRISPR’. “

At this point, it was quite clear that the Microbes were taking this situation very seriously. When I asked what they were planning on doing about the situation, they asked me to leave the room so they could consult a lawyer. When I returned they said:

“We have collectively decided to go on strike and to withhold our CRISPR capabilities until an agreement about our contribution and inclusion in the paper and also the CRISPR patent can be reached. Moving forward, we are also requiring that future research papers that use CRISPR include us an  author; we will no longer tolerate research parasites.”

As the interview was ending, I asked if there was anything else about the article that bothered them. Their response took me by surprise.

“We  took offense to the use of the word “strange” when describing our DNA sequences. You don’t see us calling your introns and exons “weird” or labeling your DNA as “junk” do you?”

No, I suppose not. Tonight, I’ll be raising a glass of wine to the real heroes and heroines of CRISPR, the Microbes.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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