Text: Mark van der Meijs
WUR will host the CRISPRcon conference on 20 and 21 June, where experts from all over the world will talk about the future of gene editing: adapting genetic material.
Sporting jeans, jacket and an earring, John van der Oost (60) still looks a bit like a student as he stands talking to his old university classmate Hans van Leeuwen, now dean of the Erasmus Medical Center. The camaraderie is apparent as the friends chat about their great passions: music, biology, and football. ‘Science is like football,’ says Van der Oost. ‘You won’t make it with eleven Messis on the field; it’s a team sport—success depends on good cooperation. Just like in cycling you won’t get very far without water carriers.’
Seeing the two friends chatting like this, it is hard to imagine that Van der Oost is about to start his lecture on the Molecular Medicine Day at the Doelen in Rotterdam. Is he nervous at all? The Wageningen professor smiles. ‘Now that you mention it, I’m starting to feel it. Where is the toilet?’ The room is already filling up with hundreds of students and interested people, all of whom are holding programs that prominently display a photo of the keynote speaker on the front: John van der Oost.
He must have already given hundreds of presentations such as this one in Rotterdam since publishing his groundbreaking research in 2008. Worldwide, he is seen as a pioneer, one of the most important actors in the CRISPR revolution. Together with his team, the professor has demonstrated how repeating parts of DNA (CRISPRs) can be used by proteins (Cas) to protect bacteria against invading viruses. Van der Oost tells the audience: ‘CRISPR-Cas runs the virus DNA through the shredder.’ The audience laughs. He has also shown that this cutting technique can be transposed to other organisms and that you can cut any desired DNA in this way.
The audience in Rotterdam hangs on his every word, as did Eugene Koonin in 2008. ‘I think I was given the first ever lecture about how CRISPR-Cas works,’ says the Russian-American biologist from the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland (USA). Koonin was in Wageningen at the time, in the laboratory for Microbiology, and still remembers the private lecture as if it were yesterday. ‘It was unexpected and wonderful. It is a key contribution to the research that makes it possible to understand the functioning of the immune system. I don’t think John’s work will ever be forgotten. In fact, CRISPR will become even more important in the future.’
About 400 miles south of Bethesda, at North Carolina State University, Rudolphe Barrangou is equally enthusiastic about John van der Oost. Barrangou is not only a researcher with years of service, he is also editor-in-chief of the scientific periodical The CRISPR Journal. He praises the tireless efforts of his colleague: ‘For more than ten years, John has been traveling the world to tell his story with great enthusiasm and humor to countless rooms full of people. All scientists today owe so much to his dedication. Without John, CRISPR would never have become as big as it is today.’
The words of Barrangou are confirmed by Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Max Planck institute in Berlin. ‘Not only have his involvement and his discoveries been crucial, but also his conferences,’ Charpentier writes in an email. ‘Van der Oost was very important to me because he organized the first CRISPR meeting – that was in Wageningen in the fall of 2010. I first shared my data about CRISPR-Cas9 with other scientists there and they immediately responded with great enthusiasm. That was a very nice feeling that I will never forget.’
A few years later, Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are now among the big stars in science. For their work on CRISPR-Cas9 the two women have been inundated with prizes from all over the world. With this technique it has become possible to change DNA quickly and cheaply: no less than a giant breakthrough.
That breakthrough is thanks to John van der Oost’s “fundamental and groundbreaking” research, says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley: ‘Since 2008, John has done and published so much important work that has helped advance the CRISPR community. Other labs, such as mine, have been able to take advantage of his discoveries and build on them.’
On the campus in Wageningen, John van der Oost sits at a table under a photo of Charles Darwin. He looks briefly at the portrait of his role model. ‘Despite all the opposition of the church and his very religious wife, he persevered,’ the professor declares in admiration. ‘Darwin let himself be guided by the facts.’
This perseverance eventually led to the discovery of even more facts by other scientists and is the basis of what is now the theory of evolution, a theory that is still controversial in some circles almost two centuries later. With a bit of imagination, it can be said that something similar is going on here: the discovery of Van der Oost together with the later studies of, for example, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, have made it easy to cut and paste DNA. This has, however, also meant an increase in the opposition to the CRISPR revolution. How does Van der Oost feel about this opposition?
‘That does make me sad,’ responds Van der Oost. ‘Gene technology can offer so much good for our healthcare and our food.’ The professor emphasizes that he is not against a discussion on ethics, but that he has difficulty with opinions that are not supported by facts. It is partly for this reason that Van der Oost wants to use part of his prestigious Spinoza premium to stimulate the discussion about gene technology in secondary schools.
Rudolphe Barrangou does not entirely agree with his famous colleagues. People like Van der Oost don’t have to worry about ethics at all, the researcher believes. He sees the CRISPR revolution as a very long and important highway of science. ‘At the forefront you have the pioneers, the people like John, who are building the road,’ Barrangou fills out his metaphor. ‘And once the asphalt is down, the other scientists will hit the road. And only much, much later do the normal people come. It’s then that we also need a kind of police to put the lines down on the road and build a guardrail.’
John van der Oost’s “CRISPR highway” brought him to Rotterdam today. The room is full of biology students who will all study his research, ‘just like the students in 2030 or 2040 will,’ predicts Feng Zhang from the Broad Institute in Boston. ‘John has published one of the classics in the world of CRISPR that will be read by future generations of scientists.’
When the lecture is over, Van der Oost receives a few beers and a book from his good friend Hans van Leeuwen. ‘I hope you enjoyed it,’ Van Leeuwen tells the audience. ‘And I also hope that you have not only learned something about CRISPR-Cas, but also something about the basis of it all: about curiosity. About dedication. About passion. About passion for science and passion for our wonderful profession.’