Jennifer A. Doudna, a biochemist and elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with a research collaborator for the development of CRISPR/Cas9, a genome-editing tool that has had a swift and profound impact on the life sciences.
In addition to carrying the lifetime honor of Fellowship since 2008, Doudna has spoken at the AAAS Annual Meeting and has served since 2007 on the board of reviewing editors at Science, the organization’s flagship journal. She and fellow laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier published their Nobel-winning CRISPR study in Science in 2012, and Doudna has authored dozens of articles in the magazine’s Insights, Policy Forum, and Perspectives sections.
Vastly cheaper, faster and more precise than the genome editors that preceded it, CRISPR is now present in labs around the world. Researchers have used it to produce new cancer therapies, crops that are resistant to climate change and other important advances.
“The dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true,” the Nobel committee said in its announcement this morning. “These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”
In nature, bacteria’s immune system uses clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, to slice the DNA of invading viruses. Doudna, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Charpentier, then based at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden, reprogrammed the genetic scissors. This enabled scientists to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Researchers can then insert new genetic code to replace the sequence that was removed.
Since Doudna and Charpentier’s first joint publication, use of the tool that they developed has exploded. After being named a runner-up for Science’s Breakthrough of the Year in both 2012 and 2013, CRISPR won the award in 2015. The Nobel is the latest accolade for the groundbreaking technology.
“This is a great moment for science and Science,” said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals. “We are pleased to have published the original CRISPR paper from Doudna and Charpentier in 2012 that was the basis for this prize.”
“The impact of CRISPR on the way life science research is conducted is immense; it is in use in almost every life science laboratory in the world,” Thorp added. “A gratifying aspect of the prize is that it was given for the basic science, which arose from curiosity-driven research in bacterial genetics. It’s great when science works this way.”
During a plenary address at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Doudna described the technical process of developing CRISPR and reflected on the technology’s implications for bioethics and business. She also highlighted the daily emails she receives from people interested in learning about CRISPR’s potential to help treat their diseases.
“I want to answer all of them,” she said.
In a press conference hosted by her university this morning, Doudna expressed her shock at becoming a Nobel laureate and echoed her desire for the tool she helped develop to continue to benefit the public.
“I started the Innovative Genomics Institute as a partnership with my colleague Jonathan Weissman…with the vision of bringing genome editing to bear on problems facing humanity,” Doudna said. “And, importantly, to do that with an eye towards affordability, accessibility and sustainability that will make the technology go from a laboratory tool to a standard of care someday in genetic disease, or a way to create the kinds of changes in agricultural products that will be necessary to meet the challenges of climate change, and so much more.”
Read about the AAAS Fellows who were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry.