For the first time, two female scientists have been awarded a Nobel Prize without a man also being honoured. They have discovered a groundbreaking way to cut DNA in a pre-determined site.
This year, Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Dr. Emmanuella Charpentier have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry following their discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors back in 2012. This genetic tool allows researchers to alter the DNA of animals, plants, and microorganisms. Its discovery has since transformed the life sciences.
In 2011, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna had no idea that their first meeting, in a café in Puerto Rico, would be life-changing.
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 7, 2020
Dr Charpentier discovered tracrRNA in 2011 whilst studying Streptococcus pyogenes. tracrRNA is a small bacterial RNA involved in protecting the cell from invading viruses as part of the CRISPR/Cas9 defence system. This complex system works by splitting a virus’ DNA, causing cell death. Following her research, Dr Charpentier partnered with Dr Doudna, resulting in the creation of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic tool which allows scientists to cut a specific site within DNA. As a result, we can now “rewrite the code of life” by manipulating DNA.
Utilising this genetic tool, researchers globally have made advances in various sectors of the life sciences. Genetically modified crops, such as golden rice, have been developed to combat food shortages, vitamin deficiencies, droughts and pests. Researchers believe that this technology could be used to cure hereditary diseases such as sickle cell anaemia, a blood disorder.
At Stanford University, scientists are trying to use CRISPR technology in the fight against COVID-19. However, this research is still in its early stages, so it is as of yet unknown if this is a viable option.
This is an extraordinary tool, with Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, stating, “there is enormous power in this genetic tool.” But how far should this CRISPR technology go? Is it our right to create ‘designer babies’ by editing the DNA of embryos? Who gets to decide this – the mother or the unborn child? Where do we draw the line?