They discovered one of the sharpest tools in genetic engineering: the CRISPR / Cas9 genetic scissors. With these, researchers can modify the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision.
Ahead of the winners’ announcement on Wednesday, Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said this year’s award is about “rewriting the code of life”.
CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing tools have revolutionized molecular life sciences, opened up new opportunities for plant breeding, contributed to innovative cancer therapies and, according to a press release from the Nobel Committee, made the dream of curing hereditary diseases come true.
However, there were also some ethical concerns about CRISPR technology.
Charpentier, a French microbiologist, and Doudna, an American biochemist, are the first women to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together, and the sixth and seventh women to win the Chemistry Prize.
Charpentier said at a news conference Wednesday that she hoped the victory “sent a positive message to the young girls who want to step down the path of science, showing them that women in science can also make an impact through their research.”
Though worth it, he said several groups of scientists had worked together on genes editing, making it difficult to narrow it down to the maximum of three Nobel Prize winners.
He was condemned by many of his colleagues, calling the experiment “monstrous”, “unethical” and a “heavy blow” to the reputation of Chinese biomedical research. Many people in the scientific community raised ethical concerns, including the consent he received from the babies’ parents and the transparency regarding gene editing.
Dr. John Parrington, Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at Oxford University, said of Wednesday’s Nobel Prize award: “I think it is well deserved indeed.”
Parrington told the UK Science Media Center (SMC) that while a number of other scientists made important contributions to this discovery, there was “no doubt” that Doudna and Charpentier played a key role in understanding the CRISPR / Cas mechanism and its How it works could be developed as a genome editing tool.
He added that editing the CRISPR / Cas genome “has immense potential to change our lives for the better, but also raises many ethical and sociopolitical issues”.
The inner workings of life
When Charpentier and Doudna were studying the immune system of a Streptococcus bacterium, they discovered a molecular tool that could be used to make precise cuts in genetic material.
They managed to recreate the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube, simplifying their molecular components so that they were easier to use.
Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust, told SMC the couple had “developed an unprecedentedly powerful and precise means of altering DNA sequences in living cells.”
“CRISPR still has great potential to bring further benefit to humankind, provided it is used carefully and well regulated,” added Norcross.
The CRISPR / Cas9 gene editing tools make it possible to easily change the life code within a few weeks, which used to be a time-consuming and difficult process.
“This genetic tool has tremendous power that affects us all. It has not only revolutionized basic research, it has also led to innovative plants and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments,” said Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee on Chemistry, in a press release .
Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR / Cas9 tools in 2012, their use has exploded, according to a Nobel Committee press release.
The technology has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, while plant researchers have been able to develop plants that can withstand mold, pests, and drought.
According to Pendlebury, Charpentier and Doudna’s Nobel recognition came relatively quickly in less than a decade. “Most of the Nobel Prizes are based on research that was done two, three or more decades ago,” he said.
Pendlebury added that the 2012 CRISPR paper has already received more than 6,000 citations. Only 700 of 50 million articles published since 1970 have received that many, he said.
Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, told the SMC that the CRISPR discoveries had already been shown to be “transformative”.
“The ability to manipulate genes offers an incredible tool for scientific research that will benefit humankind for generations from fighting and preventing disease to feeding our growing world population,” he said.
“I’m also delighted that the Nobel Committee has honored two leading women in active research. Their teamwork is an example of how scientific breakthroughs can be built on a truly global community of researchers and become role models for the pursuit of scientists of all genders . “
Doudna was born in Washington, DC and is a professor at the University of Berkeley, California. Charpentier was born in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France and is Director of the Max Planck Department for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin. They will share this year’s prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($ 1.1 million).
The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the Prize in Economics on Monday.
This groundbreaking story has been updated with additional reports.