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Jennifer Doudna works to understand the structure and biological function of ribonucleic acids, molecules which help transmit genetic information and regulate other processes within cells. Doudna earned a B.A. from Pomona College in 1985 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1989. She spent two years as a postdoctoral research fellow in molecular biology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital before moving to the University of Colorado in 1991 as a Lucille P. Markey Scholar in Biomedical Science. Doudna joined the faculty of Yale University in 1994 and served as a visiting professor at Harvard during the 2000-2001 academic year, served as a visiting professor at Harvard. In 2003, she moved to the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and became a member of the physical biosciences division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Since 1997, she has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
Listen to the Interview (requires free RealPlayer software):
Track 1: Education and Early Career
Doudna explains why she chose to be a scientist and how she stumbled into researching ribonucleic acid (RNA), the focus of her work today. (10 minutes)
Track 2: A New Twist on the Chicken/Egg Problem
Doudna discusses the discovery of catalytic RNA. Scientists knew that RNA carried genetic information, but had not known that RNA was capable of acting as a catalyst, accelerating rates of chemical reactions within cells and causing chemical transformations. This discovery raised the possibility of self-replicating RNA, which would not require enzyme catalysts to reproduce. Doudna explains this concept as it relates to her graduate and post-graduate research at Harvard. (10 minutes)
Track 3: Point of Origin
Doudna talks about whether self-replicating RNA was the mechanism by which life began, and how that hypothesis can be tested. She discusses her move from Harvard to the University of Colorado, where (as a postdoctoral researcher) her focus turned from studying RNA catalysis to solving the structure of one type of catalytic RNA’s structure using X-ray crystallography. (11 minutes)
Track 4: Crystal Clear
At Yale, Doudna mapped the structure of one catalytic RNA molecule using X-ray crystallography. This exciting work took place at a time of tumult in her personal life: Her father was dying, and Doudna spent months shuttling between her family in Hawaii and her life in New Haven. She describes her joy when, returning from a trip home, she first saw the solved RNA structure. Doudna outlines the implications of this discovery, and discusses how she chose her path forward. (8 minutes)
Track 5: RNA and Viruses
Doudna is currently working with RNA from the hepatitis D virus. Many viruses contain RNA, and Doudna explains that understanding RNA is important for understanding viral mechanisms of infection. She discusses related work by other groups and the informal collaboration between them. In addition to research with hepatitis D, Doudna’s lab group has also investigated two systems with large RNA molecules that are not catalytically active. Doudna explains how these molecules may help viruses overcome host cells’ natural defenses and co-opt their protein-making abilities, important for successful infection. (9 minutes)
Track 6: Future Directions
Doudna discusses her current work with signal recognition particles, a type of RNA that is found in virtually all cell types and is responsible for directing specific proteins to specific membranes. She also discusses how advances in genomic sequencing may help catalog the complete range of functional RNA molecules. (9 minutes)
Last Updated: 11-11-2004
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.