Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants, and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true. To celebrate their advancements, they were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It marks the first time two women have won the chemistry award.
The CRISPR-Cas9 technology gives scientist the ability to rewrite DNA in any organisms with higher efficiency and precision. This groundbreaking technology has opened up possibilities across industries including biology, agriculture, and medicine. Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings. This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionized basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Oslo, Norway-based Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
In an article on Medium, agricultural scientist Kevin Folta aptly noted that, “The technology that just won the Nobel Prize in the EU, is the same technology banned from the EU.” He says this because CRISPR technology has been important to advancing the creation of genetically engineered foods, which are not allowed to be grown in Europe, as well as to agricultural conservation.
As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. During Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.
Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.
In an epoch-making experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.
“This great honor recognizes the history of CRISPR and the collaborative story of harnessing it into a profoundly powerful engineering technology that gives new hope and possibility to our society,” said Doudna. “What started as a curiosity‐driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition. I encourage continued support of fundamental science as well as public discourse about the ethical uses and responsible regulation of CRISPR technology.”
Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.
Doudna and Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, will share the 10 million Swedish krona (more than $1 million) prize.