Pioneers of Revolutionary CRISPR Gene Editing Win Chemistry’s Nobel Peace PrizeOctober 9, 2020

Two scientists who pioneered the revolutionary gene-editing technology are the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Emmanuelle Charpentier, now at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, and Jennifer Doudna, at the University of California, Berkeley, were recognized for their work developing the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing tools. The technology allows precise edits to the genome and has swept through laboratories worldwide since its inception in the 2010s. It has countless applications and researchers hope to use it to alter human genes to eliminate diseases; create hardier plants; wipe out pathogens and more.

CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a microbial ‘immune system’ that prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, use to prevent infection by viruses called phages. At its core, the CRISPR system gives prokaryotes the ability to recognize precise genetic sequences that match a phage or other invaders and target these sequences for destruction using specialized enzymes.

Previous work had identified these enzymes, known as CRISPR-associated proteins (Cas), including one called Cas9. But Charpentier, working first at the University of Vienna and later at the Umeå Centre for Microbial Research in Sweden, identified another key component of the CRISPR system, an RNA molecule that is involved in recognizing phage sequences, in the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, which can cause disease in humans.

Charpentier reported the discovery in 2011 and that year struck up a collaboration with Doudna. In a landmark 2012 paper in Science1, the duo isolated the components of the CRISPR–Cas9 system, adapted them to function in the test tube and showed that the system could be programmed to cut specific sites in isolated DNA. Their programmable gene-editing system has inspired a gold rush of countless applications in medicine, agriculture and basic science, and work continues to tweak and improve CRISPR and to identify other gene-editing tools.

“The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences,” said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a biophysical chemist and member of the Nobel chemistry committee, at the prize announcement. “The ‘genetic scissors’ were discovered just eight years ago but have already benefitted humankind greatly.”

MVS congratulates these pioneering women on this much deserved recognition and their contribution to the scientific community.

Heidi S. Nebel is a patent attorney and Managing Member and Chair of the Biotechnology and Chemical Practice Group at McKee, Voorhees & Sease, PLC.  For additional information please visit or contact Heidi directly via email.

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