“When it happens you are very surprised and you feel it’s not for real(…)But obviously it is real so I have to get used to it,”— Emmanuelle Charpentier
“I’m over the moon. I’m in shock,”— Jennifer Doudna
Both Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were commenting on the call they received from the Nobel Prize Committee informing them that they had jointly been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
They received the award for their work on a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9.
While researching scarlet fever Charpentier noticed a previously unknown molecule which seemed to part of the bacteria’s immune system. It was in effect snipping off a part of the DNA of an attacking virus.
Doudna had been researching RNA (Ribonucleic acid) which is similar to DNA but occurs on a single strand rather than the famous double helix.
Together the two women realized the potential for creating a technique applying the bacteria’s ancient defence mechanism in genetically engineering cells.
They published a paper in 2012 and since then the science has exploded. It has been used to genetically modify crops in order to develop strains resistant to certain diseases; to look for cures for hereditary diseases such as sickle cell anaemia and certain forms of hereditary blindness; it has even being touted as a possible aid to bringing back extinct animal species.
“This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of life,” said Goran K Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
“Using these [techniques] researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and micro-organisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.”
Under normal circumstances, the two women could have expected to receive their prize in person from King Carl Gustav of Sweden but due to COVID restrictions the Chemistry awards, like every other Nobel Prize this year, will be made in the scientists’ home countries.
This is the first time that a Nobel Prize has been awarded jointly to two women.