In 2020, it is easy to overlook other scientific discoveries with COVID-19 totally dominating everyone’s minds. However, on Oct. 6, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was won by two female scientists for their amazing work involving CRISPR-Cas9. Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French professor and researcher in the fields of microbiology, genetics, and biochemistry, and Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist, won. This marked a great advancement in gene editing technology, and also was the first time two women were laureates for the chemistry Nobel Prize.
CRISPR is a natural process used by microorganisms, such as bacteria and archaea, to defend themselves from viruses. In 2012, these two scientists showed that they were able to adapt this genetic tool by making a piece of RNA that helped Cas9 target not only viral genetic material, but also genes in other living organisms, including humans.
This has been a huge breakthrough in modern science because it allows editing genomes of organisms in a fairly cheap, precise and efficient way. When scientists use CRISPR to cut a piece of DNA in the genome, the genetic material heals itself without the missing piece which allows people to insert a new piece of DNA in the now “empty” spot. This advances the process of discovering cures for genetic disorders such as sickle cell disease (disorder of red blood cells) which is caused by a mutation in DNA. These discoveries can save millions of lives from diseases that once were fatal.
There is controversy over the ethical usage of this tool. The debate of using CRISPR for gene editing in the case of life threatening diseases in human embryos is a very sensitive discussion.
CRISPR has its risks like everything else in the world, and it is up to us as people to decide how we are going to use a technology so powerful. However, it is certain that the CRISPR-Cas9 technology is a step towards the future which can help many people and lead to many new discoveries. This new, uncharted territory was made possible by Dr. Doudna and Dr. Charpentier, two women whose love of science and discovery persevered through all conflicts and challenges thrown at them.