The Atlantic

A CRISPR Pioneer on Gene Editing: 'We Shouldn't Screw It Up'

Feng Zhang says many problems still have to be solved before the technology can be used to treat human diseases.
Source: Susan Walsh / AP / twenty1studio / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The first thing many people notice about Feng Zhang—nearly every article written about him acknowledges it—is his relative youth. At just 36, with glasses and a round face that make him look even younger, the biologist has already made two discoveries tipped to win Nobel Prizes.

The big one, the one that shot Zhang to scientific celebrity, is CRISPR: a gene-editing tool that could allow precise alterations to human DNA. CRISPR is already being hyped as a cure for genetic diseases, a treatment for cancer, and a potential tool for creating designer babies. (We’ll get to all that.)

It’s also the subject of a bitter patent dispute between the Broad Institute, where Zhang works, and UC Berkeley, where Jennifer Doudna made key early CRISPR discoveries, too. The patent fight has ignited a debate over who truly deserves credit for this scientific breakthrough.

I recently sat down with Zhang at con, a conference devoted to discussing the technology’s myriad applications and where he was a keynote

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