Earlier today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two scientists for developing CRISPR-Cas9, a cutting-edge genome editing method that transformed life sciences research.
The award was presented jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany, and Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, for the co-development of CRISPR-Cas9.
Charpentier and Doudna introduced CRISPR-Cas9 to the world in 2011 through a paper published in the journal Science. Their method works like a cut-and-paste command for DNA. It has two main components: a “guide RNA” and the enzyme Cas9, reports Jon Cohen for Science. The “guide RNA” is programmed to identify a specific code in the genome. Once it identifies the gene, Cas9 works like scissors to remove it. From there, scientists can either replace the disabled gene with a new one or stitch the two ends back together. When the cells divide, the new cells follow the modified DNA template.
“Using [CRISPR], 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 Nobel Committee says in a press release.
In 2011, Charpentier was studying Streptococcus pyogenes—a bacterium that can cause life-threatening infections—when she discovered the molecule tracrRNA. Further research showed that the molecule is able to deactivate viruses by chopping off parts of their DNA. With this new revelation, Charpentier partnered up with Doudna, an expert in biochemistry and RNA. The duo figured out how to reprogram S. pyogenes’ genetic scissors and simplified its components.
“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. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life,” according to the press release.
Since Charpentier and Doudna’s discovery, CRISPR-Cas9 has gone on to solve “problems in every field of biology,” Angela Zhou, an information scientist at the American Chemical Society, tells the New York Times. In just eight years, CRISPR-Cas9 has made its way into labs across the world. Researchers have since manipulated the genome of crops to be more tolerant of pests, developed clinical therapies for diseases such as cancer, hatched plans to bring extinct wildlife back to life and attempted to wipe out local populations of disease-bearing mosquitoes.
But some applications of this powerful technology have been met with backlash: last year, a team of scientists in China were sentenced to prison after genetically modifying human embryos. Doudna has spoken out about the “scientific and ethical challenges raised by this powerful technology,” she wrote in a Science editorial. But responsible use of this technology has the power to improve the lives of millions of people, she wrote.
Charpentier and Doudna’s research “changed everything for the better,” Fyodor Urnov, a CRISPR researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Science. This award is “the most deserved Nobel Prize of the past 20 years,” he says.
“The 21st century will be the age of CRISPR—thanks to Jennifer and Emmanuelle,” Urnov concludes.