UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna, along with French colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today for the pair's pioneering work in the genome-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9.
Dr. Doudna, 56, and Dr. Charpentier became the sixth and seventh women ever to win the chemistry prize, the first being Marie Curie in 1911. Doudna is currently the Li Ka Shing Chancellor Chair Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, and she has founded and co-founded multiple startups using CRISPR technology for multiple bioengineering purposes, including agriculture and the treatment of genetic disorders.
After learning from a reporter at 3 a.m. Wednesday that she won the award (her first response to the reporter's request for comment: "Who won it?"), Doudna tells the SF Business Times, "I told him I was very glad it wasn't just a big joke."
In a followup statement to the Associated Press, Doudna said, "My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind."
Charpentier added, "I wish that this will provide a positive message to young girls who would like to follow the path of science."
CRISPR-Cas9 is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. Sometimes referred to as "genetic scissors," it was this specific tool that Doudna and Charpentier discovered in 2012 while researching the immune system of the streptococcus bacteria. They realized that a genetic editing tool already existed in nature that was far more efficient and accurate than any other tools already engineered by humans, and in the ensuing years CRISPR-Cas9 has been harnessed by pharmaceutical giants, medical researchers, and agricultural firms like Monsanto to create new disease treatments and bioengineered crops.
Per the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
CRISPR-Cas9 was adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria. The bacteria capture snippets of DNA from invading viruses and use them to create DNA segments known as CRISPR arrays. The CRISPR arrays allow the bacteria to "remember" the viruses (or closely related ones). If the viruses attack again, the bacteria produce RNA segments from the CRISPR arrays to target the viruses' DNA. The bacteria then use Cas9 or a similar enzyme to cut the DNA apart, which disables the virus.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, CRISPR has also been at the heart of an ongoing patent dispute between the Broad Institute at MIT and UC Berkeley over the technology, with MIT and its scientist Feng Zhang having been awarded the patent by U.S. authorities — which patent authorities let stand in 2017, but the legal battle continues.
Drs. Doudna and Charpentier, however, have garnered most of the scientific credit and publicity for the discovery, and the AP notes that it's rare for scientific achievements to be awarded the Nobel Prize so quickly. The pair's research only dates back to 2012, and often scientist wait decades for their work to gain Nobel recognition.
As the SF Business Times notes, a Nobel Prize can be shared by up to three people, but Zhang was not included in this year's chemistry prize.
Doudna is the second UC Berkeley figure to win a Nobel this week, with professor emeritus of physics Reinhard Genzel sharing the physics prize on Tuesday for his work in understanding black holes.
Back in March, Doudna and her Berkeley lab stepped into the pandemic fight by establishing a COVID-19 test-processing lab that was able to process 1,000 tests per day. And Doudna's Innovative Genomics Institute at the university developed one of the first saliva-based tests for COVID-19, which began trials in July, with a view toward making easy, at-home testing kits for the coronavirus.
Photo: Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW via Wikimedia