CRISPR scientists take away a Nobel

The scientists who gave us the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and US biochemist Jennifer Doudna, have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The announcement was made online in Stockholm last night, Australian time, and, CRISPR being CRISPR, and the Nobels being the Nobels, there was plenty of online chatter amid the congratulations. 

Was it too early for such an acknowledgement? Should it really have been a prize for Medicine rather than Chemistry? And, on a positive note for the Nobels, was this not the first time that two females have been the sole nominees for a prize? 

In its statement, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the 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”.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. “It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”

Charpentier, who is now Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, made the initial discovery by accident nearly a decade ago.

While studying Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause great harm to humanity, she discovered that a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA, is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

In 2011 she published her discovery and began collaborating with Doudna, from the University of California, Berkeley, a specialist in RNA. 

They succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube, simplifying their molecular components then reprogramming them. 

In their natural form, the scissors recognise 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. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.

CRISPR/Cas9 was unveiled in 2012, and since then its use has exploded. It has not been without controversy, however, in part because of ongoing patent disputes over the technology’s ownership.

There has also been inevitable focus on the ethics around how it is and could be used, an issue brought into sharp focus in 2018 when Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced he had created CRISPR-edited human twins.

Just last month, as reported in Cosmos, an international group of researchers called for national and global “citizen assemblies” to be created to consider the ethical and social implications of DNA-altering technology.

Last night, however, it was largely about the positives.

“Congratulations to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, whose Nobel recognition is hugely deserved, not least considering how transformative their CRISPR discoveries are already proving,” said Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“The ability to edit genes provides an incredible toolkit for scientific research that will benefit humankind for generations to come, from fighting and preventing diseases to feeding our growing global population.”

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