'Re-writing code of life' wins Nobel

The award has made scientific history as the only science Nobel ever won by two women

Emmanuelle Charpentier (L) and Jennifer Doudna

Researchers have been able to manipulate large chunks of genetic code for almost 50 years. But it is only within the past decade that they have been able to do it with exquisite precision – adding, deleting and substituting single units of the genetic code just as an editor can manipulate a single letter in a document. 

This newfound ability is called gene editing, the tool is called CRISPR, and since its discovery, it has revolutionised the life sciences and has subsequently rewritten the code of life.

For these, and many more reasons the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Germany, and Jennifer Doudna, professor at the University of California, Berkeley - the pioneers, who transformed curiosity of nature into a gene-editing technology able to transform the whole human race.

As so often in science, the discovery of the so-called "genetic scissors" was unexpected. During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Charpentier published her discovery in 2011 - the same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA.

Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use. In an epoch-making experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.

Now, it has been only eight years since Dr. Doudna and Dr. Charpentier co-authored their first paper demonstrating the power of CRISPR-Cas9, but the "scissors-like" technology is already exploding. In medicine, doctors are testing it to create new cancer therapies and find a cure for genetic disorders such as sickle cell disease and hereditary blindness. Plant scientists are using it to create new crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. Some researchers are even trying to use Crispr to bring species back from extinction.

Along with these high-profile experiments, other scientists are using CRISPR to ask fundamental questions about life, such as which genes are essential to a cell’s survival.

But while it has so far brought the greatest benefit to humankind, CRISPR has also become one of the most controversial developments in science because of its potential to alter human heredity. In 2018, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, announced that he had used the technology to edit the genes of human embryos, which yielded the world’s first genetically modified infants. Dr. He’s experiments were decried by many in the scientific community as irresponsible and dangerous.

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