University of California at Berkeley biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work developing the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. The tool can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with precision, and is being used as a cancer therapy and helping to cure inherited diseases.

“This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of the life,” said Göran K. Hansson, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences secretary general.

CRISPR-Cas9 is frequently likened to molecular scissors. It can hunt for specific sections of DNA and snip those out: The human cell contains about 6 billion chemical units of DNA called base pairs. CRISPR’s tremendous power is that it can find and cut just one.

“We can now change the genetic information in any cell in any organism,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel chemistry committee.

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This 2015 file combo image shows Emmanuelle Charpentier, left, and Jennifer Doudna, both speaking at the National Academy of Sciences international summit on the safety and ethics of human gene editing, in Washington. The 2020 Nobel Prize for chemistry has been awarded to Charpentier and Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing.” AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

Since its discovery eight years ago, the tool has been widely deployed in research laboratories worldwide. It has also been used for plant breeding and is a cutting-edge medical therapy in clinical trials for inherited diseases such as sickle cell disease.

“This is definitely a very expected prize for me,” said Luis Echegoyen, president of the American Chemical Society, in an interview. “It’s going to change the world and how we treat diseases.”

Ancient microorganisms developed the first version of CRISPR as their immune system. Bacteria use it to cut out foreign genetic material once viruses invade. But when manipulated by scientists, CRISPR has the flexibility of a word processor – with functions such as find-and-replace, find-and-delete or simply find.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said this award was a long time coming. “Every year we are like: ‘OK, is this going to be the year?'” He said he was “absolutely thrilled at 5:30 in the morning” to see the Nobel committee recognize Doudna and Charpentier.

“If you walk into any lab, including mine at NIH, there’s a very high likelihood that CRISPR-Cas is in the middle of those experiments,” said Collins, whose research uses CRISPR to search for genetic risk factors in diabetes.

It would be difficult to find an NIH grant for microbiology research that didn’t involve CRISPR, he said. “It’s clearly billions of dollars a year that we’re investing in this.”

NIH-funded research includes using a CRISPR system to diagnose coronavirus infections, with the goal of swiftly identifying viral genomes in the swirl of genetic material taken from a nasal swab. That has the potential to be a faster and more precise tool than the tests that use a technique called PCR, Collins said.

CRISPR’s great power has also spurred controversy. In 2018, a researcher in China used CRISPR to edit human embryos, an approach Doudna and other scientists condemned as reckless and unethical. A Chinese court sentenced the scientist, He Jiankui, to three years in prison.

Since 1901, the Nobel Committee has awarded 112 prizes in chemistry to 186 people. Seven, including Doudna and Charpentier, have been women. Last year, John B. Goodenough became the oldest person to win a Nobel – he was 97 – for his work developing lithium-ion batteries, an award he shared with chemists M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino.

Charpentier and Doudna split a prize of 10 million Swedish kronor, or about $560,000 each.


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