The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in partnership with the American Chemical Society, hosted a briefing for congressional staffers on Thursday about the role of National Science Foundation funding in the development of innovative genetic tools.
The briefing highlighted the discovery of CRISPR, which was enabled by a small NSF grant for the study of bacterial defenses against viruses. The revolutionary gene-editing tool, over the long term, is likely to have substantial societal impacts, with applications in the agricultural, defense and healthcare sectors, just to name a few.
Moderated by Jocelyn Kaiser, a staff writer at Science magazine, the briefing featured ASBMB member Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Joanne Tornow, acting assistant director of biological sciences at the NSF; and David Schaffer, also a professor at Berkeley.
Doudna, a leading figure in the CRISPR field, said that the federal government must continue to invest in fundamental research of basic biological mechanisms. She described how CRISPR has improved the field of synthetic biology and development of biofuels, helped produced crops with substantially increased yields, and had various other applications. None of these developments would have been possible without the NSF grant that supported her lab’s studies of a basic biological mechanism in bacteria.
Tornow described the impact of the NSF’s 11,000 awards, which support 350,000 researchers and 2,000 institutes. She stated that these grants have enabled funding of discoveries in life science research, driving discovery and innovation of the fundamental research required for biomedical discoveries. The CRISPR revolution is one of many examples of how NSF funding has had a major societal impact.
Schaffer discussed how scientists, now equipped with CRISPR, can eventually integrate new DNA into patient tissue, allowing individuals to produce proteins and enzymes that they were lacking. For example, researchers introduced a small DNA sequence that could lead to the production of insulin in diabetic rats, removing the need for daily insulin injections. Schaffer also stressed the importance of NSF’s role in supporting the scientific infrastructure, funding core facilities that allow scientists to use shared equipment and lower costs.
In the end, the speakers’ collective message was clear: Federal investment in fundamental scientific research can yield revolutionary technologies that have unexpected, positive societal impacts.
Follow @dpham20 on Twitter to view the live tweets of this event.