Beautiful Science: Genetic Scissors

Emmanuelle Charpentier (left) and Jennifer Doudna (right) won this year’s chemistry Nobel for the development of a powerful way to change DNA. Photo (left to right): Peter Rigaud c/o Shotview Artists; Deanne Fitzmaurice.

Of all the Nobel Prizes awarded in 2020, that which impressed me most is the prize for Chemistry – for its sheer ingenuity and the reach of its applications. According to the citations by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna [1] won the prize “for the development of a method for genome editing.” While correct, this terse statement hardly does justice to the magnificent work of these two scientists.

What Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna discovered is one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. Why would they want to do that? The short answer is that researchers need to modify or ‘edit’ genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings, develop crops that could withstand mould, pests and drought, or develop effective therapies to fight cancer and cure inherited diseases. This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks. Since the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012, their use has exploded. The tool has led to many important discoveries in basic research. Plant researchers have been able to develop more hardy crops. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is coming to fruition. It is no exaggeration to state that the tool developed by the two Nobel laureates have taken the life sciences into a new era and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

Below is a simplified illustration of how the CRISP/Cas9 Genetic Scissors work. This is followed by a video TED Talk lecture on this Nobel Prize-winning work by co-discoverer, Jennifer Doudna.

TED Talk
Jennifer Doudna speaking about the potential of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors for treating diseases and the ethical issues associated with this technology she co-invented with Emmanuelle Charpentier.

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