Nobel Chemistry Prize 2020 awarded for genome editing tool

The Nobel Prize 2020 for chemistry was jointly achieved by two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, for developing CRISPR-cas9, which edits DNA.

Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna are only the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. It is the first time in history that two women received this prize.

Who are the laureates?

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States co-authored their work on CRISPR-Cas9 first in 2012. They have shown the world the power for customizing genes.

Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, 51, is a microbiologist and director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. She stumbled upon Crispr while studying Streptococcus pyogenes, a bacteria that causes scarlet fever and other diseases. She, with her colleagues, discovered a mysterious repetitive DNA.

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR were bits of genetic material derived from viruses infecting the bacteria. The bacteria had archived the past infections, which they could later use to defend against future attacks. Dr. Charpentier published a paper on her discovery in 2011.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna, 56, University of California, Berkeley, is an RNA specialist. She met Dr. Charpentier, and they realized that they might harness the RNA molecules to seek out and alter any piece of DNA. The duo devised the tool, which includes an enzyme called Cas9 that slices the viral genetic material.

Impact of the genetic “scissors” on the world

Scientists have previously discovered various DNA alteration methods, but they are costly and demand extensive resources and machinery. Crispr is far more sophisticated and precise.

It has already found its way into the labs worldwide, only within eight years of its discovery. It is remarkable how this tool can be used for customizing genes—whether in microbes, plants, animals, or even humans.

Doctors are experimenting with it for developing cures for genetic disorders, while plant scientists are using it to create new crops. It is a pathbreaking discovery for every biology field, with scientists even trying to bring back extinct species by using it.

It is also holding potential dangers for humanity in terms of human heredity alteration possibilities with the perks. In 2018, He Jiankui used the CRISPR to edit human embryos’ genes, which yielded the world’s first genetically modified infants. An international committee declared last month that Crispr was not mature enough to alter human embryos.

In 2017, Dr. Doudna co-wrote a book, “A Crack in Creation,” to describe both sides of this coin.

“This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of life,” Goran K. Hansson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said as he announced the names of the laureates for the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Image courtesy of 976photo Studio/Shutterstock

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