Two female scientists have been honored with the Nobel Prize 2020 in Chemistry. The award is shared between Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for developing the tools to edit the DNA. They are the first two women to share the prize ever.
Emmanuelle Charpentier, born in 1968 in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, obtained her PhD from the Institut Pasteur in Paris. She also subsequently worked at scientific institutes in the US, Austria, Sweden and Germany alongside France.
Jennifer Doudna was born in Washington DC in 1964. She spent much of her childhood in Hilo, Hawaii and was awarded her PhD by Harvard Medical School.
This is a proud moment for the people all over the world as this year is the first time any of the science prizes has been awarded to two women without a male collaborator also listed on the award.
The award is presented in honor of their work on the technology of genome editing. The women have discovered a way of making precise, exact and specific changes to the DNA contained in living cells by Crispr-Cas9 “genetic scissors”.
The scientists have received prize money worth 10 million krona or $1,110,400.
Biological chemist Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, says that the discovery of the ability to cut DNA where you want is the pioneer in revolutionizing the life sciences. The newly researched technology holds the potential to transform basic research and treat inherited illness.
Professor Emmanuelle works in the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. When she heard about receiving the award, she said, it was an extremely emotional and mesmerizing moment of her life. In an interview, she said, “When it happens, you’re very surprised, and you think it’s not real. But obviously it’s real”.
It is a moment of honor for her to be one of the first two women to share the Nobel Prize. She said that she hopes that this will send a positive and empowering example to the world, especially to the young girls who wish to follow the path of science. She wanted to prove that women can work as hard as men in the field of science and can also have an impact on the research they carry out.
While carrying out her studies of the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, she discovered tracrRNA. It was an unknown molecule that was not discovered earlier and her work now revealed that tracrRNA is a part of an organism’s immune defense system. The system discovered by the two scientists, called Crispr-Cas, disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA, just like genetic scissors.
How did the two women meet?
Charpentier published her work in 2011, the same year when she collaborated with Prof Jennifer. Prof Doudna was from the University of California, Berkeley. Both of them got to know each other via a mutual acquaintance at a café in Puerto Rico. There were several scientists attending a conference at that place.
The very next day, prof Charpentier proposed the idea of joining hands in the research to the other lady while they were exploring the streets of San Juan.
The collaboration proved successful and they began re-creating the bacterium’s genetic scissors in a test tube. Together, they worked on simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.
What is the discovery and how will it help?
The bacterial scissors sense and recognize DNA for viruses via natural mechanisms. But the prudent scientists revealed that the scissors can be potentially be reprogrammed to dissect any DNA molecule at a particular spot. They published their research and discovery in a historic paper in 2012.
With this discovery of the breakthrough DNA snipping technology by the scientists, we now have the opportunity to rewrite the “code of life”.
After the discovery of the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors, their use has zoomed to unprecedented levels and jumped up exponentially as it played a leading role in discovering other new findings in basic research. Moreover, the clinical trials for new cancer therapies in the field of medicine are also in the process after the discovery.
With the use of this technology, we can now also treat and cure inherited biological diseases. Currently, the investigation for the use of this system in treating sickle cell anemia is also going on. It is a blood disorder that has affected millions of people across the world.
However, it must be noted that the discovery needs to be tightly regulated. Any lack of security can also harm general interests, as is expected by some other scientists. They believe that without regulation Crispr could potentially be used to create “designer babies”. The creation of this would lead to major conspiracies and would also open up an ethical minefield. It could hamper generations because when genome-edited children would have children, any changes which were made to their genomes could successfully be passed to the new generation. This could go on beyond imagination and will introduce lasting changes to the human population.
In 2019, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, was put into jail for three years. He was charged for creating the world’s first gene-edited human babies and was convicted of violating a ban by the government. The violation was on account of carrying out his own experiments on human embryos. He was experimenting to try to give these embryos protection against HIV.
It was also believed that this discovery won’t be recognized by the Nobel Committee and thus, will not be awarded. People thought so because the system is involved in a long-running patent battle in the United States. The battle is between Charpentier and Doudna’s group at the University of California, Berkeley, and a team at MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The disagreement is primarily on the usage of this technique in eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotic cells are those cells that bundle their DNA in a nucleus and are found in higher animals, that the most profitable future applications will exist. Both the parties to the dispute claim that their scientists made the most relevant advances in the technology.