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DNA blue

The conventional story of CRISPR genome editing is one of heroic power and promise with an element of peril. That peril became personified when MIT Technology Review’s Antonio Regalado revealed in November 2018 that a young Chinese scientist named He Jiankui was using CRISPR to engineer human embryos. At least three of them became living children. The “CRISPR babies” episode is now an obligatory chapter in any telling of the gene-editing story. When Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were awarded the Nobel Prize last year for their invention of CRISPR, virtually every news story also mentioned He. In this century’s grandest story of heroic science, he plays the villain.

Storytelling matters. It shapes not only how the past is remembered, but how the future unfolds.

He Jiankui’s plans were shaped by stories about how science progresses and how heroes are made. One such moment came in a small, closed-door meeting hosted by Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, in January 2017, to which He was invited. There a senior scientist from an elite American university observed, “Many major... see more