Two women make history by being jointly awarded 2020 Nobel Prize for chemistry © Nobel Media. Ill. Niklas Elmehed.

CRISPR scientists awarded 2020 Nobel Prize for chemistry

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna are the first women to receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry in the same year.

For the first time since the awards began in 1901, the Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to two women. This brings the total number of women Nobel laureates in chemistry to seven.

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna won the award for their work developing a method for gene editing, called CRISPR-Cas9.

In 2012, Charpentier and Doudna showed that the CRISPR-Cas9 technique could be used to pinpoint and cut out a specified section of DNA. The technology has shown promising progress in developing therapies for hereditary heart failure, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, to name just a few uses for CRISPR.

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CRISPR stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’, which is a pattern that was found in bacterial DNA in the late 80s.

Scientists discovered that this CRISPR pattern coded for a defence mechanism in the bacteria’s cell. When it is attacked, by a virus for example, the bacteria is able to ‘copy and paste’ a section of the virus’s DNA into its own genome. Then, the bacteria could develop a pair of genetic scissors – an enzyme named Cas – specific to that virus, so that any further attacks could be defended by a single snip.

The discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 excited biologists and chemists around the globe. In a chance meeting at a conference in 2011, Charpentier and Doudna decide to collaborate in studies looking at the functionality of the Cas enzyme.

A year later, they publish their discovery that the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors can modify the genome of human cells.

But they weren’t the only team working on a method of gene editing. The US Broad Institute beat Charpentier and Doudna to a patent, but the two researchers are viewed by the scientific community as the real pioneers of CRISPR technology.

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The prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (£864,000) will be shared equally between Charpentier and Doudna.

This is the first time two women have shared the award – previous female winners have either been jointly awarded with men, or been named the sole award winner.

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The five previous female Nobel laureates in chemistry are Marie Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Ada Yonath and Frances H Arnold.

Reader Q&A: Could we bring back an extinct species using DNA, Jurassic Park style?

Asked by: Alec Maddocks, via email

To ‘de-extinct’ an animal, you need a source of the animal’s DNA, which provides the blueprint for making it. DNA is sometimes preserved in fossils, and the oldest DNA extracted to date comes from a 700,000-year-old horse bone found in the Canadian permafrost.

However, DNA breaks down over time, and scientists think that it’s unlikely to be found in any specimen older than a million years. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. No dinosaur DNA, no dinosaurs. Sorry!

Some other species, however, are fair game. In 2003, scientists briefly de-extincted a type of goat, called the bucardo. DNA-laden cells, taken from the last living female before she died, were used to create a clone, and the resulting embryo was transplanted into the womb of a living domestic goat.

The bucardo was delivered by Caesarean section, but died shortly after birth due to lung defects. The bucardo was therefore the first animal to be de-extincted, but also the first animal to go extinct twice!

Other de-extinction projects include attempts to revive an Australian amphibian called the gastric-brooding frog, a North American bird called the passenger pigeon and the one and only woolly mammoth. These use a combination of cloning, gene-editing and stem cell methods, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the pitter-patter of tiny feet. De-extinction is still very much in its infancy, so for now, take solace in the fact that dinosaurs never really left us. Birds are their direct descendants, and they’re everywhere.

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