Nobel Chemistry Prize Awarded For CRISPR ‘NanoScissors’
A humbling lesson of science is that, even when it comes to many of humanity’s most brilliant inventions, nature got there first. The 2020 selection for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to two scientists who share credit for identifying and developing a revolutionary method of genome editing — one that has allowed researchers to modify and investigate the genomes of microbial, plant and animal cells with an ease, precision and effectiveness that would have been unfathomable even a decade ago. Yet the technology that came out of their work, revolutionary as it is, springs from an innovation that first evolved in bacteria, probably more than a billion years ago, and went unnoticed until recently.
Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens Institute for Infection Biology and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley have been recognized for their work on CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing — a technique routinely called CRISPR for short and often referred to as “genetic scissors.” This award marks the first time that two women have been award a Nobel Prize for science.
In a seminal 2012 paper, Charpentier and Doudna showed that key components of the ancient immune system found in bacteria and archaea could be retooled to edit DNA, to essentially “rewrite the code of life,” as the Nobel committee put it this morning.
In the eight years since, the discovery has transformed the life sciences, making genome editing commonplace in laboratories around the world. It has enabled researchers to probe the functions of genes at will, pushing the field of molecular biology ahead by leaps and bounds; to innovate new methods of plant breeding; and to develop promising new gene therapies, some now in clinical trials, for conditions such as sickle cell disease.
The Nobel committee’s selection will undoubtedly be greeted as controversial because of well-publicized disputes about the intellectual property associated with CRISPR. Virginijus Šikšnys of Vilnius University in Lithuania independently developed the idea of using these genetic features of bacteria as a genome-editing tool at about the same time as Charpentier and Doudna, and he has sometimes been honored alongside them. Two other scientists, Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Church of Harvard University, are also often credited as early co-discoverers and developers of CRISPR technology, and their exclusion will fuel arguments. However, no one in the scientific community would dispute that Charpentier and Doudna’s work laid the foundation for CRISPR’s prolific and game-changing use today.