This year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer Doudna of the US for their pioneering work in developing the Crispr gene editing technique that has transformed biology research.
The “genetic scissors” developed by Professors Charpentier and Doudna have had a transformational impact, enabling researchers to change the DNA of animals, plants and microbes far more precisely than older genetic engineering techniques.
“It has not only revolutionised basic science but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, on Wednesday.
The chemistry prize has never before been shared by two women. “My wish is that this will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through their research,” said Prof Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.
Prof Doudna, of University of California, Berkeley, added: “What started as a curiosity-driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition. I encourage continued support of fundamental science, as well as public discourse about the ethical uses and responsible regulation of Crispr technology.”
The ethics of Crispr came to worldwide attention in 2018 when He Jiankui, a Chinese biophysicist, revealed the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies, whose DNA had been manipulated to prevent future infection with HIV/Aids.
Scientists denounced Dr He’s human experimentation because it risked passing on unintended changes to future generations. Scientific academies and the World Health Organization are now working on ways to ensure that human gene editing can be carried out safely and ethically.
The two new laureates began their collaboration in 2011, investigating the way the immune system of bacteria chops up the genes of invading viruses. The scientists were able to recreate the bacterial genetic scissors in the lab and simplified the molecular components to make them easier to use.
Then, in what the Nobel announcement called “an epoch-making experiment”, Profs Doudna and Charpentier reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise viral genes but the two laureates showed how to make them cut any DNA molecule at a pre-determined site. Precise cutting of DNA makes it easy to rewrite the code of life.
Other scientists were quick to heap praise on the laureates. “The biological significance of their work, and the enormous efforts of many other scientists in the field of genome editing, cannot be overstated,” said Simon Waddington, professor of gene therapy at University College London.
“Crispr truly democratised genome editing, making it accessible to a multitude of scientists across many fields of biology, from plant research to diagnostics to biomedical research in cancer, rare diseases and so many other areas,” Prof Waddington added. The work also “elevated genetic research into the public consciousness and has provoked an intense and deep debate about our relationship with our own genetics, and the genetics of every other living creature”.
There was some surprise that Feng Zhang, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another scientist who has played a leading role in developing Crispr technology, did not share the prize. MIT has been fighting University of California, Berkeley over patent rights to the technology.
Asked whether anyone else was considered for this year’s award, Prof Gustafsson replied: “That is a question we never answer. This is a big field and there is a lot of good science taking place.”