Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to discoverers of CRISPR-Cas9

James Marshall
October 13, 2020

The French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and the American biochemist Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the prestigious prize.

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a simple but powerful tool for editing the DNA in cells in the laboratory (not directly in people!). Many (hereditary) diseases in humans could be a thing of the past with this technique.

Professor Doudna and her collaborator and co-awardee, Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, were the first to show, in 2012, that the CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes could be used to edit genomes, offering new hope for treating genetic diseases such as sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and diabetes. This difference in approach means that European breeders look beyond their own borders.

"It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments".

Professor Charpentier first published her finding of the tracrRNA molecule (part of the DNA-cleaving CRISPR/Cas system) in the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, in 2011. The gene editor called CRISPR/Cas9 is one such unexpected discovery with breathtaking potential. When viruses infect a bacterium, they send their harmful DNA into it. Bacteria that have survived a virus infection add a piece of the genetic code of the virus into its genome as a memory of the infection. Between each viral DNA is a repeated sequence. The scissor protein, Cas9, forms a complex with the guide RNA, which takes the scissors to the place in the genome where the cut will be made.

This technique can disable or fix a gene, or insert something new where the molecular scissors have cut.

This effectively allows researchers to insert, fix or edit a gene in such a way that the DNA doesn't see the change as damage, but as a legitimate edit to be replicated by the cell. The cell will use the template when it repairs the cut in the genome, so the code in the genome is changed. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research and clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway.

"Our future world and specifically our agriculture rely on these important discoveries in science to apply them for mitigating the impact of climate change and sustainably preserving food security", says von Essen.

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