The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to the 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 Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer A. 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 Science. Their discovery was rapidly expanded on by many others and soon made CRISPR a common tool in labs around the world. The work spawned industries working on making new medicines, agricultural products, and ways to control pests.
Many anticipated that Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute, who showed 6 months later that CRISPR worked in mammalian cells, would share the prize. The instutions 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 revolutionised the life sciences. The genetic scissors were discovered 8 years ago, but have already benefited humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a chemical biologist at Chalmers University of Technology, at the prize briefing.
CRISPR was also used in one of the 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, which has in other areas become a leader in CRISPR research..
Doudna and Charpentier—who is originally from France and at the time of the discovery worked at the University of Vienna–showed that they could program a small strip of what they called “guide RNA” to carry a CRISPR-associated (Cas) enzyme to exact DNA sequences, allowing them to target specific genes. Cas then cuts the double-stranded DNA. In many cases, the DNA repair mechanism of the cell makes errors, which can cripple a gene. CRISPR also allows researchers to insert a new stretch of DNA at the cut site.