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Earlier this month Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing method. This method is one of gene technology’s sharpest tools.

Modifying genes in cells used to be time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes impossible. CRISPR-Cas9 has made it possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks. Claes Gustafsson, chairperson of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry said, “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised science but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.”

Nobel Prize-winning method surprises scientists

CRISPR-Cas9’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery was unexpected. Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, led her discovery of a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR-Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. She then initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube. Furthermore, they simplified the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.

Since Nobel Prize winners Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 its use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in research. In addition, plant researchers could develop crops that withstand mould, pests, and drought.

Moreover, in medicine clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards this accolade each year. For more details, read the press release on The Nobel Prize website.