A few minutes ago, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two female scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their contributions in “development of a genomic editing method”.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of the sharpest tools of modern genetic engineering: the CRISPR / Cas9 genetic scissors. It is the most commonly used gene editing tool today.
With CRISPR / Cas9, scientists can now modify the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extreme precision.
This technology has had a revolutionary impact on life science, contributes to new cancer therapies, and could make the dream of curing genetic diseases a reality.
To study and learn of the most profound aspects of life, researchers have long learned that they need to be able to edit genes in cells. This was time consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work.
But with the CRISPR / Cas9 genetic scissors, it can now help scientists edit a genome in just a few weeks. Like many other inventions, this gene-editing tool was discovered by accident.
During her research on Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the most harmful bacteria to humans, Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered a previously unknown molecule, which she called tracrRNA.
Charpentier’s research shows that tracrRNA is part of the ancient immune system of bacteria she calls CRISPR / Cas. CRISPR / Cas has the function of helping the virus-killing bacteria to invade them by dissolving genetic material of the virus such as scissors to cut paper manually.
Charpentier announced her discovery in 2011. The same year, she began collaborating with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with a deep knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacterial genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the molecular composition of the scissors to make them easier to use.
In an experiment that opened up a new era for gene editing, they reprogrammed this CRISPR / Cas9 genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognize DNA from the virus, but Charpentier and Doudna have shown that they can be controlled to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined position.
It is a milestone that officially makes CRISPR / Cas9 a genetic editing tool, making it easier for scientists to rewrite the codes of life.
Ever since Charpentier and Doudna invented the CRISPR / Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012, its application has exploded. This tool has helped a lot of basic studies come to fruition, such as genetically engineered plants that are resistant to fungi, pests and drought.
In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapy using CRISPR / Cas9 are underway. And in the future, a dream can be cured from genetic diseases is about to come true. An effective gene editing tool has and will bring life science into a new era, bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.
Emmanuelle Charpentier was born in 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. She received her doctorate in 1995 from the Pasteur Institute, Paris. Charpentier is currently the Director of the Pathogen Science Unit of the Max Planck Research Institute, Berlin, Germany.
Jennifer A. Doudna was born in 1964 in Washington, DC, USA. She obtained her doctorate in 1989 from Harvard Medical School, Boston. Doudna is currently a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a research fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
With the Nobel Prize won this year, the two scientists will share a prize worth 10 million Swedish kronor, equivalent to more than 1.1 million dollars.