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Crop Biotech Update

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna Awarded 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

October 14, 2020
Photo Souce: Nobel Media. Ill. Niklas Elmehed.

On October 7, 2020, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley for the development of a method for genome editing. This method, the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors, is one of gene technology's sharpest tools.

Modifying genes in cells used to be time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes impossible work. CRISPR-Cas9 has made it possible to change the code of life over the course of 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."

CRISPR-Cas9's 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 and 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 and simplifying the scissors' molecular components so they were easier to use.

Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mold, pests, and drought. 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.

For more details, read the press release of the announcement on The Nobel Prize website.

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