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It's Their Time

The fight over who developed the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing tool first actually highlights science's history of parallel discoveries, writes Wired's Sarah Zhang, who is not related to the Broad Institute's Feng Zhang.

While the paper from University of California, Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, came out first, the Broad's Zhang received the patent on the approach. But the University of California is disputing that patent award.

Wired's Zhang notes that this commonly told tale of two dueling labs leaves out a third lab at Vilnius University in Lithuania where Virginijus Siksnys was also working on CRISPR/Cas9 — his lab's paper came out in PNAS a short time after Doudna's and Charpentier's appeared in Science.

The time, Wired's Zhang says, was ripe for CRISPR/Cas9, as research builds upon an "accumulated cultural base," as sociologist Robert Merton puts it. That is, there was groundwork in place performed by other researchers to pave the way for CRISPR/Cas9. "[D]iscoveries don't drop out of the air — they're products of their time," she adds.

Wired's Zhang then argues that parallel discoveries are a recurrent theme throughout the history of science. For instance, she notes that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently discovered calculus, and Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both developed the theory of evolution.

"The problem is, though, is that Nobel prizes go to a maximum of three people, and patents only to one group of inventors," she adds.