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Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors

Charpentier and Doudna

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the development of a method for genome editing.

In 2012 the two scientists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier published their ground-breaking findings about the mechanisms behind the CRISPR/Cas 9 system. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. Their 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, states the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

This is the first time two women share a Nobel Prize.

A tool for rewriting the code of life

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. She published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna and 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 a milestone experiment, they reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognize 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.

Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded, says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “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.”

Read more: The CRISPR/Cas 9 patent battle

“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 Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Made the discovery in Umeå, Sweden

Emmanuelle Charpentier, born 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, has a PhD (1995) from Institut Pasteur, Paris, France. She is currently Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany.

In 2008, she was recruited to Umeå University in Sweden, as Head of a MIMS (Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden) research group and she stayed there for several years. It was also in Umeå she made the CRISPR-Cas9 discovery. In 2017 she became Honorary Doctor at Umeå University.

“We must be very open about the challenges that women face”

Jennifer A. Doudna, born 1964 in Washington, D.C, USA, has a PhD (1989) from Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. She is currently Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, USA and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In an interview from National Geographic’s 2019 book “Women”, Doudna say that “we must be very open about the challenges that women face”. For example she says that “we need to continue to discuss these issues and ensure that women fell welcome and enabled to contribute fully to society in whatever way they feel is important to them – whether it’s through being moms, or being involved professionally, or some combination”. Read the full interview with Jennifer Doudna here!

Illustration of Charpentier and Doudna: Niklas Elemehed. Copyright: Nobel Media