German-French researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier and US researcher Jennifer A. Doudna have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing.” Charpentier is the Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, while Doudna is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The duo have been credited with the discovery of the ‘CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors’, one of the sharpest tools in gene technology. Using these, 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,” the prize announcement statement reads. 

“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.

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.

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, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. 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. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

Charpentier was born in 1968 in France and completed her Ph.D in 1995 from Paris’s Institut Pasteur. US-born Doudna, born 1964 in Washington, secured her Ph.D in 1989 from Harvard Medical School. 

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