Two women share chemistry Nobel in historic win for 'genetic scissors'
Emmanuelle Charpentier (L) and Jennifer Doudna formed an impressive partnership in 2011
Two scientists were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the tools to manipulate DNA.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are the first two women to share the award, which recognizes their work on genome editing technology.
Their discovery, known as Crispr-Cas9 "genetic scissors", is a way to make specific and precise changes to the DNA contained in living cells.
They will split the 10 million crowns (£ 861,200; US $ 1,110,400) prize pool.
Biochemist Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede commented: "The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences."
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Women's technology has not only changed basic research, it could also be used to treat hereditary diseases.
Prof. Charpentier from the Max Planck Department for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin said it was an emotional moment when she found out about the award.
"When it happens, you are very surprised and think it's not real. But obviously it's real," she said.
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As one of the first two women to share the award, Prof. Charpentier said: "I would like this to be a positive message especially for young girls who want to step down the path of science ... and show them that women are in science can also affect the research it does. "
She continued, "This is not just for women, but we see a clear lack of interest in following a scientific path, which is very worrying."
Graphics: The couple developed tools that can be used to rewrite the code of life
During Prof. Charpentier's research on the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, she discovered a previously unknown molecule called tracrRNA. Their work showed that tracrRNA is part of the organism's immune defense system.
This system, known as Crispr-Cas, disarms viruses by splitting their DNA - like genetic scissors.
In 2011, the same year she published this work, Prof. Charpentier began a collaboration with Prof. Doudna from the University of California at Berkeley.
The two had been introduced by a colleague from Doudna in a café in Puerto Rico, where the scientists were attending a conference.
And the next day, while walking the streets of the island's capital, San Juan, Prof. Charpentier suggested the idea of joining forces.
Together they simulated the bacterium's genetic scissors in a test tube. They also simplified the molecular components of the scissors so they were easier to use.
In their natural form, the bacterial scissors recognize the DNA of viruses. However, Charpentier and Doudna showed that they can be reprogrammed to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined location, and published their results in a landmark 2012 paper.
The groundbreaking DNA snipping technology made it possible to rewrite the "Code of Life".
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Since the two scientists discovered the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors, their use has exploded. The tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research. Clinical studies with new cancer therapies are currently underway in medicine.
The technology also promises to treat or even cure hereditary diseases. It is currently being investigated for its potential to treat sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that affects millions of people around the world.
But without regulation, some may fear that Crispr could also be used to create "designer babies" who open an ethical minefield. As genome-edited children grow up and have children, changes in their genome could be passed down through generations, resulting in permanent changes for the human population.
Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui was imprisoned for three years after creating the world's first gene-edited human babies. He was convicted of violating a government ban by conducting his own experiments on human embryos to try to protect them from HIV.
It was assumed that a Nobel Prize for this revolutionary science would not be awarded for many years, as the technology is also the subject of a longstanding patent dispute in the USA.
The dispute involves Charpentier and Doudna's group at the University of California at Berkeley and a team at MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The disagreement centers on the use of the Crispr technique in eukaryotic cells - those cells that bundle their DNA into a nucleus. It is in such cells, which are found in higher animals, that the most profitable future applications will exist.
The competing institutions claim that their scientists have made the crucial and most relevant advances.
Emmanuelle Charpentier was born in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, in 1968. She did her doctorate at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and then worked at scientific institutes in the USA, Austria, Sweden and Germany - in addition to her home country France.
Jennifer Doudna was born in Washington DC in 1964 but spent much of her childhood in Hilo, Hawaii. She received her PhD from Harvard Medical School.
This year, for the first time, one of the science prizes was given to two women without a male employee being listed in the award.
The Swedish industrialist and chemist Alfred Nobel established the prizes in his will, which was written in 1895 - a year before his death.
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Previous Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry
The lithium-ion battery "made the mobile world possible"
2019 - John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino share the award for their work on lithium-ion batteries.
2018 - Discoveries about enzymes earned Frances Arnold, George P Smith, and Gregory Winter the award
2017 - Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded the prize for improving the images of biological molecules
2016 - Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa shared the award for making machines on a molecular scale.
2015 - Discoveries in DNA repair earned Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar the award.
2014 - Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner were awarded the prize for improving the resolution of optical microscopes.
2013 - Michael Levitt, Martin Karplus and Arieh Warshel shared the award for developing computer simulations of chemical processes.
2012 - Work showing how protein receptors transmit signals between living cells and the environment won the award for Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka.
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