This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to two scientists who transformed an obscure bacterial immune mechanism, commonly called CRISPR, into a tool that can simply and cheaply edit the genomes of everything from wheat to mosquitoes to humans.
The award went jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, “for the development of a method for genome editing.” They first showed that CRISPR—which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats—could edit DNA in an in vitro system in a paper published in the 28 June 2012 issue of Science. Their discovery was rapidly expanded on by many others and soon made CRISPR a common tool in labs around the world. The genome editor spawned industries working on making new medicines, agricultural products, and ways to control pests.
Many scientists anticipated that Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute, who showed 6 months later that CRISPR worked in mammalian cells, would share the prize. The institutions of the three scientists are locked in a fierce patent battle over who deserves the intellectual property rights to CRISPR’s discovery, which some estimate could be worth billions of dollars.
“The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences. The genetic scissors were discovered 8 years ago, but have already benefited humankind greatly,” Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a chemical biologist at the Chalmers University of Technology, said at the prize briefing.
CRISPR was also used in one of the most controversial biomedical experiments of the past decade, when a Chinese scientist edited the genomes of human embryos, resulting in the birth of three babies with altered genes. He was widely condemned and eventually sentenced to jail in China, a country that has become a leader in other areas of CRISPR research.
Although scientists were not surprised Doudna and Charpentier won the prize, Charpentier was stunned. “As much as I have been awarded a number of prizes, it’s something you hear, but you don’t completely connect,” she said in a phone call with the Nobel Prize officials. “I was told a number of times that when it happens, you’re very surprised and feel that it’s not real.”
At a press briefing today, Doudna noted she was asleep and missed the initial calls from Sweden, only waking up to answer the phone finally when a Nature reporter called. “She wanted to know if I could comment on the Nobel and I said, Well, who won it? And she was shocked that she was the person to tell me.”
No previous science Nobel has been given to two women only. “It’s great for especially younger women to see this and to see that women’s work can be can be recognized, as much as men’s,” Doudna said. “I think for many women, there’s a feeling that no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized as it might be if they were a man. And I’d like to see that change, of course, and I think this is a step in the right direction.”
Doudna added that she used to get puzzled looks when she said she worked on a bacterial immune system. Bacteria use the original form of CRISPR to fend off viruses, slicing up their DNA. “I am so pleased that the [Nobel] award description led off with the bacterial adaptive immune response, which is a truly amazing system, thus highlighting how basic research is absolutely critical for medical applications,” says CRISPR researcher Maria Jasin of the Sloan Kettering Institute.