DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, some of us may think we know how science works, some genius sitting in a lab, working late into the night - and finally, eureka. Then come the big prizes and maybe the patents. Well, NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports that discoveries are rarely that straightforward.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: I'm going to tell you about the biggest thing since DNA. It's actually a way to edit DNA as easily as fixing typos in an email.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is no longer science fiction, thanks to a new tool called CRISPR-Cas9.
GUY RAZ, BYLINE: CRISPR.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: CRISPR.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: CRISPR, C-R-I-S-P-R.
BICHELL: CRISPR-Cas9 is a long, awkward acronym that basically just means a molecule that cuts up DNA like a pair of scissors. Scientists figured out a way to use that scissor-tool in pretty much any organism - from mushrooms to human embryos. And now, with patents and awards and probably a future Nobel Prize hovering, the big question is, who exactly invented this revolutionary method?
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NATHANIEL COMFORT: Yeah, that is literally a billion-dollar question.
BICHELL: That's Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of science and biomedicine at Johns Hopkins University. He says answering the question of who discovered CRISPR is a hairy mess.
COMFORT: We have this romantic notion of this eureka moment, right? And when it's happening, it's frequently not clear what the discovery is.
BICHELL: Was the discovery that nature already had a way to cut and paste DNA? Was it that people could control that process? Or was it when people made it into a ready-made tool? The answer is, it was all of these discoveries. Biology is complicated. So
there wasn't just some genius at Harvard who came up with all of it. It was lots of people in lots of labs working all over the world, which brings us to the city of Vilnius in Lithuania. It's home to medieval castles and potato dumplings called zeppelins, but it's also home to a biochemist whose name is really hard to pronounce.
VIRGINIJUS SIKSNYS: Virginijus Siksnys.
BICHELL: Shikshnees (ph)?
SIKSNYS: Uh, no.
SIKSNYS: You missed one sh (ph).
BICHELL: Sheeksnees (ph)?
BICHELL: Virginijus Siksnys has always worked in Lithuania, except for his Ph.D. in Moscow, back when his home country was part of the Soviet Union and borders were closed. He now leads a lab at the Institute of Biotechnology at Vilnius University.
SIKSNYS: So, this is one of the labs that will be probably empty.
BICHELL: Not many people know about Siksnys and his colleagues. But a few years ago, they did something really important. They figured out how bacteria cut genes from other organisms and paste them into their own genetic code. And, more importantly, they found out how to control that process so that they could tell a bacterium which gene to cut out. That was huge.
SIKSNYS: That was a kind of moment of discovery. So it was really exciting.
BICHELL: And, says Nathaniel Comfort, it was one of those important steps in getting gene editing to where it is now.
COMFORT: They figured out several important pieces of this puzzle. The catch is that they weren't the only ones to do that.
BICHELL: A prestigious group had come to similar conclusions at the same time. And both groups were rushing to publish their findings. The other group's paper got fast-tracked, and it came out first. That was a tough moment for Siksnys and his lab.
SIKSNYS: OK, so CRISPR field is really competitive.
BICHELL: Some of the authors on the other paper are now contenders for the U.S. patent and, some say, for a potential Nobel Prize. Siksnys knows he probably won't get a Nobel Prize. But he also knows how science really works, that big eureka moments are mostly a myth. Instead, discoveries happen when a pile of little eureka moments, like ones coming out of Vilnius, stack up in just the right way. And it's those moments, not the prizes, that keep him going. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.