Koonin, CRISPR and the war

Working with Estonian-American scientist Kira Makarova, in 2002 Eugene Koonin identified the genetic region known as CRISPR-Cas. Three years later his group discovered its natural function. He continues to work on microbial defense systems.

“Science in times of war: oppose Russian aggression but support Russian scientists” is the heartfelt article recently published by Eugene Koonin in EMBO Reports. Koonin is a leading evolutionary molecular biologist and a CRISPR pioneer. Born and raised in Moscow, he left the USSR a few weeks before it dissolved in 1991 and moved to the US where he works at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI-NIH).

He was elected Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA in 2016 and Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) in 2019 but resigned from the second one at the end of February this year. You can read why in the excerpt below, and learn more about his outstanding contribution to science and the CRISPR field in this PNAS profile.

“Not that I did not have my doubts accepting the nomination in 2019: 5 years earlier, Russia had illegally annexed Crimea, started a deplorable, even if small-scale war in the East of Ukraine, and, appallingly, supplied the weapons with which separatists shot down a commercial plane, killing hundreds of civilian passengers. I suppressed those doubts, though, telling myself that, despite its inevitable loyalty to the government, the RAS represented the Russian scientific community, not the Putin government. More personally, my nominator was a dear friend, an outstanding scientist, who could not possibly endorse those atrocities”.

“On February 26, 2022, I sent an open letter to the President of the RAS, Alexander Sergeev, in which I stated that unless the RAS—or at least, its leadership—formally condemned the war within 48 h upon the receipt of my letter, I had no other choice than to resign my membership. I further noted that, at this point, my membership felt like a disgrace and not an honor anymore. Some commentators disapprovingly branded my letter an ultimatum, which is nonsense, because the RAS could not care less about one member. My point was that, in the wake of the tragedy unleashed by the Russian government, I found it morally impossible to remain affiliated with the RAS unless it publicly dissociated itself from the war. I also felt it made sense to make my position public. Predictably, I received no response, and accordingly, consider my membership null and void”.

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