The chemistry nobel prize goes to two women for the discovery of the revolutionary genome editing tool
This year, two women made history by winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. They discovered CRISPR-Cas9 in 2021, a game-changing tool that allows scientists to edit DNA sequences and gene function (1). Scientists often describe it as a pair of molecular scissors that can recognize and cut strands of DNA(2).
CRISPR completely revolutionized almost every area of the life sciences in a short time. After Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna published their findings in 2012, doctors have been experimenting with many potential uses ranging from curing hereditary diseases to synthesizing new plants (3).
Dr. Charpentier, a microbiologist, initially discovered CRISPR by accident. While studying the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, she discovered a series of intriguing repeating sequences. The DNA sequence in question had been previously discovered and given the name “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” (nucleotide repeats and spacers), CRISPR(3).
The bacteria had been making RNA molecules that recognized viral genes, then cutting out and storing them away for later use as self-defense. In 2011, Dr. Charpentier wrote a paper on this discovery but needed to consult with an expert in the study of RNA– Dr. Doudna (3).
After meeting at a conference, they realized a potential use of these RNA molecules could be to recognize any piece of DNA (3) They figured out that the bacteria can grab bits of the viral gene with the enzyme Cas9. Dr. Doudna and Dr. Charpentier found that they could make the RNA that recognizes the viral gene to recognize and cut any gene, an idea proven by a different team in 2012(2). By using CRISPR to cut DNA at two neighboring sites, the scientists inserted a novel stand of DNA. This process can be done with single letters (nucleotides which make up the DNA sequence) as well (2).
CRISPR is different from other techniques for many reasons––namely its precision and cleanliness. It does not use expensive and large equipment and ultimately is possible in a school classroom. In 2011, Feng Zhang, a biologist at the Broad Institute, also recognized the functionality of CRISPR for editing genes. When Drs. Charpentier and Doudna published their paper, Dr.Zhang and his team continued to publish research on human cells in 2012. Due to similarities in their work, they ended up in an unresolved legal battle over the patent for CRISPR. Dr. Doudna hopes that they can settle their differences and instead focus on furthering science (3).
Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna foresee the possible dangers of CRISPR and realize the only path to success is by following ethical guidelines. They hope to raise awareness that any new technology, especially in the realm of genetics, does not come without its consequences. (1)
Women and scientists of color have made up a small percentage of Nobel Prize winners since 1901. 185 people have won the award and only 7, including the two winners this year, have been women. Science can be exclusionary to minority women when they try to make their voices heard, the past trend of winners being reflective of this cycle. This year’s award not only celebrates a magnificent contribution to science but also serves as a hopeful sign of a more representative future(1).
– Sofia Chen
- Greenfieldboyce, N., & Katkov, M. (2020, October 07). 2 Scientists Awarded Nobel Prize In Chemistry For Genome Editing Research. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/10/07/921043046/2-female-scientists-awarded-nobel-prize-in-chemistry-for-genome-editing-research
- Vidyasagar, A. (2018, April 21). What Is CRISPR? Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html
- Wu, K., & Peltier, E. (2020, October 07). Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded to 2 Scientists for Work on Genome Editing. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/07/science/nobel-prize-chemistry-crispr.html