Nobel in Chemistry Honors CRISPR/Cas9 Genome Editing
- Posted by ISPE Boston
- On October 15, 2020
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany “for the development of a method for genome editing,” specifically the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using this tool, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.
Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings. This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.
As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.
Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.
In an epoch-making experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognize DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site.
Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. (Source: Nobel Prize Website, 07 October, 2020)
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Image – Attribute © Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences