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He Jiankui delivering a speech

He Jiankui, a young Chinese scientist known to his American colleagues as JK, dreamed of remaking humanity by exploiting the emergent technology of gene editing. He had academic polish, and an aptitude for securing institutional support. As a student, he had left China for the United States, where he did graduate work in physics at Rice and a postdoc in a bioengineering lab at Stanford. At the age of twenty-eight, he was recruited into a prestigious Chinese government program for foreign-educated talent, and was offered a founding position in the biology department of the Southern University of Science and Technology.

SUSTech was a newly created research institute in Shenzhen, a city in the midst of a biotech boom. JK, who arrived in 2012, likened Shenzhen’s startup culture to that of Silicon Valley—bold creativity was encouraged, and there was plenty of capital on hand. With colleagues from his lab, he often held brainstorming sessions at a café near campus, delineating his plans. In the first ten years, he would tackle a variety of genetic diseases; in the ten years after that... see more