Deadly DNA and CRISPR technologyOctober 9th, 2020
I’ve just finished writing a novella titled Deadly DNA which will be available in print and ebook next month. It is the story of Francesca Mechlin, a graduate student at Iowa University who must battle against a foreign power intent on pirating the gene editing technology she is developing. Francesca is fictional, but theft of American intellectual property by foreign nations, especially the Chinese Communists, is an unfortunate reality. Genome editing is also a reality, and a very positive one. It is opening up vast possibilities for medical practitioners to improve human health. Just this week it was announced that the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded to the two women who developed CRISPR-Cas9: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. Here’s a link to the announcement: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2020/press-release
I took many liberties with the technology of genetic engineering in my story, but for an explanation of the real technology, there is a 2014 presentation by Doudna at: https://www.ibiology.org/genetics-and-gene-regulation/crispr-cas9
This photo from several years ago shows them (at far left) and their colleagues during the development of CRISPR. I like to think my heroine, Francesca, is much like them, young and smart and passionate about her research.
have been reading about CRISPR for some time now, and I find the field of genetic editing so fascinating I had to write a story that includes it. But my book is not an in-depth exploration of the technology of gene editing, it is only a fun, fast, read with genetic engineering research as background.
Here’s an excerpt (at this point in the story the bad guys are closing in on Francesca and her friend Leah who are at work in Fran’s lab.)
There was a very faint noise outside the lab door.
“Let’s get out of here right now,” Leah whispered.
I stepped to the door and swiped my passkey past the card reader – the light stayed red. I tried it again, but the light remained a steady red. I tried pulling the door, but it was still firmly locked.
“They deactivated your key!” Leah said. “We’re trapped in this lab!”
I pointed at the glass transom over the door. “No we’re not. We break out the glass, slide through, and run for the fire exit at the end of the corridor.” I pulled out my phone. “I’ll call Rick. We need a getaway car waiting for us when we get out of the building.”
“Hurry,” Leah said. She picked up a metal lab stool.
Rick answered immediately, thank God. “Leah and I are in the Hathman Building and people are after us. We’re going out the fire exit, can you pick us up on Maple Street?”
“Be there in five minutes.”
Leah took one practice swing, then hurled the lab stool up and at the glass transom. Broken glass blew out into the corridor and the lab stool fell back at our feet. The racket from upstairs increased; people were breaking down the front door of the building.
Leah set the lab stool back up on its legs. “Not even bent. Good quality; American made.”
I stood on the stool, laid a lab smock across the broken glass and slid through the transom. Leah was beside me in a minute and we raced for the fire exit at the end of the corridor.
There was a tremendous crash from the front door upstairs and the sound of running feet. “Sounds like they’re in the building!” Leah said.
I jammed down hard on the fire exit panic bar and the steel door creaked open. The fire alarm started blaring.
In darkness we scrambled up concrete stairs littered with dirt and leaves, then bolted across the lawn to Maple Street.
In Deadly DNA, Francesca learns that no discovery can be un-discovered, and that any technology can be weaponized. But she is smart enough to stay one step ahead of the bad guys to ensure CRISPR is used for the good ends for which it was designed.
I’ll be watching the Nobel Prize awards ceremony live-streamed from Stockholm on December 10 to see the two women who developed CRISPR receive their well-deserved award .