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CRISPR genome editing pioneers win Nobel prize in chemistry

12 October 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1067

Professors Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of CRISPR genome editing.

The approach devised by the pair allows researchers to alter the DNA within cells with record accuracy, using molecules that evolved in bacteria as a defence against viruses. 

Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry explained the significance of CRISPR genome editing: 'It has not only revolutionised basic science but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.'

Professor Charpentier first published her finding of the tracrRNA molecule (part of the DNA-cleaving CRISPR/Cas system) in the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, in 2011. Shortly afterwards she started a collaboration with biochemist Professor Doudna, and the pair succeeded in manipulating the naturally occurring CRISPR/Cas complex to make precise targeted DNA edits.

CRISPR/Cas9 is faster and less expensive than previous approaches to precise genome editing, meaning it quickly became invaluable to researchers across a plethora of disciplines and has contributed to major discoveries in many research areas.

Some resulting work has raised ethical concerns, notably after Chinese scientist, Dr He Jiankui, created the world's first genome-edited babies (see BioNews 997). The experiment caused an outcry within the scientific community, raising concerns ranging from the level of consent gained to the unknown long-term effects of genome editing. 

Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust (the charity which publishes BioNews) said that the Professors Doudna and Charpentier had 'devised an unprecedentedly powerful and precise means of changing DNA sequences in living cells.' She added: 'there is still vast potential for CRISPR to bring further benefit to humanity, provided that it is used in a diligent and well-regulated way.'

Professor Doudna, born in Washington, USA, is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Charpentier was born in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France and is director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany. 

Professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: 'I am hugely pleased to see that the Nobel committee has chosen to honour two leading women in active research - their teamwork is an example of how scientific breakthroughs are based on a truly global community of researchers and they can become role models for aspiring scientists of all genders.'

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