The Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna are two geneticists that have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing a revolutionary method of gene editing that has therapeutic and biotechnological applications.
Eight years ago the two scientists and their team described in the journal Science a new tool for modifying the genome of an organism. It is easy to use, cheap and can cut DNA exactly in the right place in order to, for example, correct a genetic mutation and perhaps in the future cure rare diseases.
The mechanism is called CRISPR/CAS9 and it also has the name of “molecular scissors”. This system combines two essential functions for editing DNA. First, it can recognise a specific part of the genome sequence and remove that piece of DNA. Then, using the natural repair systems of cells, the removed piece of DNA can be substituted with another that does not contain the mutation that causes the disease, thus creating a “healthy gene”.
Today CRISPR/CAS9 is a widely used technique in chemistry and molecular biology laboratories, and studies are currently trying to determine how the technique could be used to treat diseases such as cancer or genetic diseases.
CRISPR is found naturally in some bacteria, where it forms part of the immune system by cutting out and incorporating the DNA of invasive agents such as viruses. Both researchers managed to reproduce these gene scissors in a test tube and to simplify its molecular components to make them easy to use by researchers around the world.
The Spaniard Francis Mojica, also nominated for the prize, has not been given any award despite having discovered the CRISPR system in bacteria.
In addition to the aforementioned biomedical applications, the CRISPR/CAS9 system developed by Charpentier and Doudna can be used in other fields for example to create new cultures with beneficial characteristics or to modify microorganisms used in industry to improve their performance. This technology is a recent development but it has been cited for several years as a Nobel Prize candidate. In fact, it is not the first time that these geneticists have been recognised for their scientific advances. They have also won various awards, including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2014), the Princess of Asturias Prize for Scientific and Technical Research in Spain (2015) and the Kavli in Nanoscience in Norway (2018), among others.