Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to duo behind CRISPR breakthrough

7 Oct 2020

Image: © Jürgen Fälchle/

For their work in creating a ‘genetic scissors’, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been named winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Two scientists behind one of the most celebrated and most discussed breakthroughs in genetics have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna discovered and developed the gene editing tool CRISPR/CaS9.

This has been described as a genetic scissors, allowing researchers to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. While still in continual development, its contribution to life sciences has been significant, particularly with new cancer therapies and its potential to cure a number of inherited diseases.

Charpentier unexpectedly discovered a previously unknown molecule dubbed tracrRNA while reviewing studies of the harmful bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Publishing her findings in 2011, Charpentier teamed up with Doudna, a biochemist and RNA expert, and recreated tracrRNA in a test tube and simplified its molecular components to make it easier to use.

‘Enormous power in this genetic tool’

In a number of follow-up experiments, the pair reprogrammed the molecule so that it can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. This resulted in the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing tool in 2012.

Commenting on the duo’s work, Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said: “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 groundbreaking new medical treatments.”

Despite its significant potential, CRISPR/Cas9 has also been called into question in recent years by scientists warning of severe unintended consequences caused by editing DNA. This was brought into the spotlight in 2018 when scientist He Jiankui, without peer review, altered genomes of unborn twins to make them resistant to HIV.

Doudna was among the many names in science to criticise He’s actions at the time, saying: “It is imperative that the scientists responsible for this work fully explain their break from the global consensus that application of CRISPR/Cas9 for human germline editing should not proceed at the present time.

“It is essential that this news not detract from the many important clinical efforts to use CRISPR technology to treat and cure disease in adults and in children.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic