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Charpentier and Doudna win 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Two women scientists win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of powerful gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9

  • Only five women have previously won the Nobel prize for Chemistry 
  • The two scientists have won the award for their discovery of Crispr-Cas9 
  • The ground-breaking tool allows for precise changes for genetic code 

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier, 51, and Jennifer Doudna, 56, won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the development of a method for genome editing.

They both worked on the discovery of Crispr/Cas9, a powerful gene-editing tool which allows researchers to make precise changes to genes. 

Only five women have previously won the Nobel prize for Chemistry, despite the award first being handed out in 1901. 

Professors Doudna, from France, and Charpentier, from America, are the first women to share the prize.

Crispr-Cas9 has already become one of the most widely used tools in the treatment and creation of therapeutics for hereditary diseases. 

It has been likened to a pair of genetic scissors, allowing for tiny snippets of the genome to be removed and replaced. 

Emmanuelle Charpentier

This year’s winners of the Nobel prize for chemistry are Emmanuelle Charpentier (right) and Jennifer Doudna (left)

Previous women to win the Nobel prize for chemistry 

  • Marie Curie 1911
  • Irène Joliot-Curie 1935
  • Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin 1964
  • Ada Yonath 2009
  • Frances H. Arnold 2018

‘Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors,’ the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

The scientists will share the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.1 million) prize.

The recipients were announced today in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

‘There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,’ said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. 

‘It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.’

Gustafsson said that as a result, any genome can now be edited ‘to fix genetic damage.’

Gusfafsson cautioned that the ‘enormous power of this technology means we have to use it with great care’ but that it ‘is equally clear that this is a technology, a method that will provide humankind with great opportunities.’

Professor Charpentier is a leading researcher in microbiology, genetics and biochemistry and now holds the post of director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany.

During her education she attended the Pierre and Marie Curie University, an institute in Paris. 

This place of higher learning is named after Marie Curie, and her late husband, who is one of the most famous scientists of all time, and a fellow winner of the Nobel prize for Chemistry, which she won in 1911.

‘I was very emotional, I have to say,’ Charpentier told reporters by phone from Berlin after hearing of the award. 

Jennifer Anne Doudna is an American biochemist known for her pioneering work in CRISPR gene editing at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

WHAT IS CRISPR-CAS9?

CRISPR-Cas9 is a tool for making precise edits in DNA, discovered in bacteria.

The acronym stands for ‘Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindromic Repeats’.

The technique involves a DNA cutting enzyme and a small tag which tells the enzyme where to cut.

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique uses tags which identify the location of the mutation, and an enzyme, which acts as tiny scissors, to cut DNA in a precise place, allowing small portions of a gene to be removed

The CRISPR/Cas9 technique uses tags which identify the location of the mutation, and an enzyme, which acts as tiny scissors, to cut DNA in a precise place, allowing small portions of a gene to be removed

By editing this tag, scientists are able to target the enzyme to specific regions of DNA and make precise cuts, wherever they like.

It has been used to ‘silence’ genes – effectively switching them off.

When cellular machinery repairs the DNA break, it removes a small snip of DNA.

In this way, researchers can precisely turn off specific genes in the genome.

The approach has been used previously to edit the HBB gene responsible for a condition called β-thalassaemia. 



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