The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded for the discovery of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors.
Following the monday annoncement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the identification of Hepatitis C virus, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has announced yesterday the receivers of Nobel Prize in the field of Chemistry. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna discovered and developed one of the most precise tool of gene editing, named CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. They have become the 6th and 7th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry since 1901.
“When it happens, you’re very surprised, and you think it’s not real. But obviously it’s real,” says Charpentier on receiving the Nobel Prize.
CRISPR/Cas9 scissors – what is it?
With this newfound tool, it is possible to edit and change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. Since its discovery in 2012, it had a great impact on the life sciences. Currently, CRISPR/Cas9 is used in the development of new cancer therapies.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, according to a press release.
If gene therapy involves inserting a normal gene into cells that have a defective gene, such as a Trojan horse, CRISPR goes further. Instead of adding a new gene, the instrument modifies an existing gene. It is easy to use, not very expensive and allows scientists to cut DNA exactly where they want, to create or correct for example a genetic mutation.
How was CRISPR/Cas9 discovered?
As it happens with most of the ground breaking discoveries in science, the “genetic scissors” was found unexpectedly. During her research on Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Furthermore, she discovered that tracrRNA is part of the bacteria’s immune system which disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.
Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. In the same year she started a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they recreated bacteria’s genetic mechanism, simplyfing the scissors’ molecular components. Subsequently, this system was called CRISPR/Cas9. Later, they proved that the system can be controlled to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. In this way, scientist around the globe can use CRISPR/Cas9 to rewrite the code of life.
This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research. Plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway. Consequently, the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true.