This year's Nobel for Chemistry went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the discovery of genetic scissors — CRISPR/Cas9 protein.
Utilizing this resource, researchers are able to modify the DNA of living animals, plants, and all sorts of microorganisms with a laser-cut precision. It can be used to treat a wide range of genetic disorders such as beta-thalassemia and sickle cell anemia, even some types of cancer.
To tinker with the inner workings of life, researchers need to modify gene sequences. This was possible with different methods prior to CRISPR, albeit it was extremely difficult, costly, time-consuming, and sometimes outright impossible. Using these genetic scissors, it is now possible to do so over the course of just a few weeks.
Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry said, "There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionized basic science but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments."
An unexpected discovery
Like many things in the wondrous world of science, this discovery was also an unexpected one. Emmanuelle Charpentier was studying Streptococcus pyogenes — a pathogen for humans (think pharyngitis, tonsillitis, scarlet fever, cellulitis, erysipelas, rheumatic fever) — when she discovered an unknown molecule, tracrDNA.
Her study revealed that this tracrDNA is part of bacteria's ancient immune system. To put it in simple terms, this molecule disarmed assailant viruses by "slicing" open their DNA.
Programming the 'scissors'
This discovery was published in 2011 and the same year, she teamed up with Jennifer A. Doudna, an adept biochemist focused on RNA. Together, they recreated these "scissors" in an isolated lab setting, simplifying the molecular components along the way so they're easier to put to use.
And in a groundbreaking experiment, they reprogrammed the scissors. As we mentioned, in their original state, the scissors are tasked with recognizing and interacting with viral DNA. Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could control the target, meaning they could slice up any DNA molecule at a predetermined position. The sliced up DNA allowed for an easier overwriting.
CRISPR has become a booming field of research since its discovery. Apart from animals, scientists utilized this tool to make plants that are resistant to mold, pests, and drought.
In the medical field, new cancer treatments are underway, and researchers are closing in on curing certain inherited diseases. CRISPR will surely keep revolutionizing the way we approach life sciences.
The upcoming Nobel program
The program for the announcement of Nobel Prize winners goes like this:
- Literature – Thursday 8 October, 13:00 CEST at the earliest
- Peace – Friday 9 October, 11:00 CEST
- Economic Sciences – Monday 12 October, 11:45 CEST at the earliest