This year, for the first time in history, a science Nobel Prize was won by two women. Scientists Emmanuelle Marie Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 “for the development of a method for genome editing”. Their pioneering contributions to research on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tools have been described as revolutionary. “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. “It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is the defence mechanism that prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea) use to fight off a form of viruses called phages. CRISPR allows prokaryotes to recognise invaders’ precise genetic sequences so that they can destroy the invaders using specialised enzymes called CRISPR-associated proteins (Cas).
One of these specialised enzymes is called Cas9. And it was Charpentier and Doudna’s work on the CRISPR-Cas9 system published in their landmark 2012 paper in Science that has been lauded as “epoch-making”. They essentially developed a tool – ‘genetic scissors’ – that enabled scientists to edit genes.
As with all scientific developments of this scale, Charpentier and Doudna were not the only researchers involved in progressing the field of genetic engineering. As summarised in a Nature news article about the duo’s momentous win, there have been many pioneers in CRISPR: microbiologist Francisco Mojica, biochemist Virginijus Siksnys, geneticist Feng Zhang, genome engineer Jin-Soo Kim, and molecular biologist/biochemist Dana Carroll… However this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry recognises Charpentier and Doudna as pivotal players, and celebrates the impact of their discovery has had for humankind.
Which is significant in this world where, as Doudna has said “many women think that, no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized the way it would be if they were a man.” Doudna believes that this Nobel Prize was awarded to them “refutes that. It makes a strong statement that women can do science, women can do chemistry, and that great science is recognized and honored.”