US-French duo wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry for gene-editing technique

Illustration: Niklas Elmehed.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer Doudna of the United States on Wednesday won the Nobel Chemistry Prize for developing the gene-editing technique known as the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA snipping “scissors”, thereby becoming the sixth and seventh women to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true,” the Nobel jury was quoted saying.

The laureates Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, which is termed as one of gene technology’s ‘sharpest’ tools.

Researchers will now be able to alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision using these.

Charpentier, while researching a common harmful bacteria, had discovered a priorly unknown molecule — part of the bacteria’s ancient immune system that disarms viruses by snipping off parts of their DNA.

Charpentier worked with Doudna to recreate the bacteria’s genetic scissors, post-publishing her research in 2011, thereby simplifying the tool so it was easier to use and apply to other genetic material.

They then reprogrammed the scissors to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site — paving the way for scientists to rewrite the code of life where the DNA is snipped.

The CRISPR/Cas9 tool has already contributed to significant gains in crop resilience, altering their genetic code to better withstand drought and pests.

The technology has also led to innovative cancer treatments, and many experts have expressed their hope citing it could one day make inherited diseases curable through gene manipulation.

The first time a woman was honoured with the chemistry prize was in 1911 when Marie Curie, who also took the physics prize in 1903, won for discovering the elements radium and polonium.

The pair is set to share 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million, 950,000 euros).

They would normally receive their Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

But the in-person ceremony has been cancelled this year due to the COVID pandemic and replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.


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