by Rohit Khorana (’24)| November 16, 2020
In October 2020, Jennifer Doudna, professor of biochemistry at UC Berkeley, and Emanuelle Charpentier, Managing Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, became the newest Nobel laureates in chemistry. This is the first time in history that two women jointly received this internationally prestigious award that recognizes revolutionary contributions to the field. Doudna and Charpentier have been awarded the Nobel for their work on CRISPR, a groundbreaking technology used to edit genes.
CRISPR, which stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” is a method that has been rapidly implemented in laboratories worldwide since its discovery. The technology identifies target sections of DNA and binds RNA with the protein Cas9, which then travels along a strand of DNA in search of a 20 base pair sequence that matches the sequence of the RNA. Once a match is found, the Cas9 can edit the DNA at that specific place and even disable genes.
CRISPR has made gene editing a reality. It acts as a kind of “genetic scissors,” giving scientists the capacity to directly, deliberately change the DNA of living organisms. Because of this ability, CRISPR has revolutionized the life sciences. It has many diverse uses, including the treating and prevention of many diseases, the replacement of faulty genes, and the making of better crops. It can even be used to fingerprint cells or to create gene drives, which are genetically engineered features that, through being passed down to large numbers of descendants, can quickly change an entire population over the course of a generation.
Although CRISPR has immense power to transform the world for the better, it also has many morally questionable applications. For instance, in China, a biophysicist named He Jiankui announced that he and his team used CRISPR to edit the embryos of a pair of twin girls. After the news spread, Jiankui was harshly criticized for his unethical use of CRISPR on human beings and is now serving a prison sentence. Afterward, scientific societies from the US and the UK hosted an international meeting in September of this year, where it was decided that CRISPR is not yet ready for use in human embryos.
Nonetheless, many scientists agree with the Nobel Committee’s choice to honor Doudna and Charpentier’s work on CRISPR. Francis Collins, head of the US National Institutes of Health in Maryland, said, “It is always difficult to single out a discovery for a prize…CRISPR made [genome editing] much more readily acceptable. There is no molecular biology laboratory that I know of that hasn’t started to work with CRISPR.”
Although Doudna and Charpentier conducted the critical early work that characterized CRISPR, several other researchers also played important roles in its development and research applications. These include Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute of MIT and George Church at Harvard Medical School, who were expected by many in the scientific community to be included in the Nobel nomination. Despite the ongoing debate over whether they should have been included, Church has expressed approval of the Nobel committee’s choice, saying that his and Zhang’s work could be classified as engineering and invention, rather than scientific discovery.
Doudna and Charpentier have helped to create an innovative technology that continues to revolutionize biotechnology and genetic research. As the only two women to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, their achievement is also a historic win.