The revolutionary “genetic scissors” CRISPR opens up groundbreaking avenues, essentially allowing researchers to ‘cut’ DNA at the desired spot. The two researchers who pioneered this method were now awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Emmanuelle Charpentier of Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, were the first to show that an obscure bacterial immune mechanism (now called CRISPR) can edit DNA in a system.
It’s been less than a decade since their 2012 landmark paper — basically yesterday in Nobel time (for comparison, one of this year’s Physics laureates was awarded the prize for the work caried in from the 70s) — but the technology is already proving revolutionary.
Charpentier published her first major CRISPR paper in 2011 and met Doudna in the same year, at a scientific conference in Puerto Rico, where they reportedly went for a long walk on the beach. Their seminal paper came out a mere year later, showing that a bacterial enzyme (the already-famous Cas9) could cut DNA in test tubes. Since then, there have been over 100,000 published papers and the approach is already being researched in everything from agriculture to test diagnosis and treatment; there are countless applications, each of them exciting on its own.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Doudna was “really sound asleep” when her phone started buzzing — it was a Nature reporter who broke the news to her.
“I grew up in a small town in Hawaii and I never in a hundred million years would have imagined this happening,” says Doudna. “I’m really stunned, I’m just completely in shock.”
“I know so many wonderful scientists who will never receive this, for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that they are wonderful scientists,” Doudna says. “I am really kind of humbled.”
The Nobel announcement was not without controversy, and this year’s prize may prove to be consequential in more than one way. Charpentier and Doudna are now locked in a fierce legal battle with Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While the two Nobel Laureates showed that CRISPR can work in vitro, it was Zhang 6 months later who showed that it can work in mammalian cells. Some expected Zhang to receive a share of the Prize, but he has been ignored by the Nobel committee, which may weigh heavily in the fight for the intellectual property rights to CRISPR (an invention likely worth billions).
For now, though, the world has access to a precious little genetic tool — and two of its pioneers have been honored with the highest distinction in the field.
Up to now, only seven women have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (3.8% of 186 laureates overall).