Genome-editing women win historic Nobel Chemistry Prize

Lilla Marshall takes a look at the women who made Nobel Prize history

Lilla Marshall
26th October 2020

Professors Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have made history as the first women to share a Nobel Chemistry Prize, for their discovery of the CRISPR genome editing method.

At 10.48AM on October 7th, the Nobel Chemistry Prize 2020 was awarded to two of the scientists behind the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing method. The tool (described as "genetic scissors") allows for researchers to cut DNA at any desired position, allowing for precise insertion or deletion of genes. CRISPR has revolutionised both biomedical research and agriculture, and has received extensive attention from the public: both from the hopes of eliminating genetic diseases and the ethical concerns behind gene editing in humans.

The discovery came about in 2011, when Charpentier was looking at the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes and how it defends itself from viruses. Viruses would inject viral RNA in to the bacteria, which would insert itself in to the bacterium's DNA. She characterised the Cas9 system, which allowed the bacteria to identify viral RNA and remove it. She then joined forces with Doudna, to recreate this process outside of bacteria.

In 119 years of the Nobel Chemistry Prize, only seven winners have been female

In the 119 year history of the Nobel Chemistry Prize, there have only been seven winners who were women (including Doudna and Charpentier) and until this year, no year had ever seen two or more women share the prize.

"I wish that this will provide a positive message specifically for young girls who would like to follow the path of science... and to show them that women in science can also have an impact with the research they are performing," Charpentier spoke about the historic implications of their joint victory.

Women represent 45.7% of UK science professionals

Women have notoriously been underrepresented in STEM fields. However, last year, the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) campaign revealed that women represent 45.7% of UK science professionals, with the trend increasing rapidly each year as it approaches the crucial 50/50 split.

Despite the undisputed influence of the discovery, the prize came as a bit of a surprise to the scientific community. There is currently a legal dispute regarding the patent of CRISPR between Charpentier/Douda and another group in Massachusetts, who claim it was their developments on the system that allowed it to be used in animals. Many believed that the Nobel Prize Committee would wait until this dispute was finished before awarding the prize to CRISPR.

Image Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, NHGRI via Flickr

In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui famously used the technique to secretly modify the genes of human embryos to create resistance to HIV, after forging ethical approval. The experiment led to the birth of twins Lulu and Nana in October 2018, which he claimed were completely healthy - although many scientists are concerned about the long-term health issues they may face. He Jiankui was later sentenced to three years in prison for his actions.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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