The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 has been awarded jointly to Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer A. Doudna for their work on the technology of genome editing. Charpentier and Doudna are the first women to share the prize!
Modification of genes has been essential for genetic research. Previously, approaches were time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible to work. However, the advent of CRISPR/Cas9 technology has revolutionised the field of genetic engineering and also holds great promise for future developments in the field.
During studies on the gram-positive bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, Charpentier discovered a previously unknown molecule known as tracrRNA. Her work demonstrated that tracrRNA is an important part of the bacteria’s ancient immune system. This system, known as CRISPR/Cas, is able to disarm viruses by cleaving their DNA. In 2011, Charpentier was able to publish her findings.
In this same year, Charpentier initiated a collaboration with Doudna. Together, they were able to recreate the bacteria’s system within a test tube. Additionally, they were able to simplify the Cas9 endonucleases’ molecular components, making them easier to use. Naturally, the Cas9 endonuclease is able to recognise viral DNA and cut it. As a result, Charpentier and Doudna proved that it could be controlled to find and cut a specific DNA sequence.
Significance of this Nobel Prize-awarded discovery
The ability to cut DNA at a specific site has revolutionised the life sciences. Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the system in 2012, its use has rocketed. It has allowed us to ask different kinds of questions, make important discoveries and even develop resistant crops. Most importantly, it brings us a step closer to being able to treat devastating genetic disorders.
Moreover, the fact that Charpentier and Doudna are the first women to share this prize, is a significant and inspiring moment for all current and future female scientists worldwide!
Commenting on her win, Charpentier from the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, stated:
“When it happens, you’re very surprised, and you think it’s not real. But obviously it’s real.”
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