Two female Nobel Prize laureates: CRISPR-Cas9’s revolutionary biotechnological breakthrough


Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna

For the first time in history, the Nobel Committee selected two female scientists as the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Oct. 7, 2020.

Recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for their advancement of a previous genetic editing tool, CRISPR, microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and structural biologist Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded 10 million Swedish kronor, or approximately $1.1 million USD, in prize money.

The rapid advancement of CRISPR-Cas9 technology was not the only breakthrough that was recognized throughout the presentation of this remarkable distinction.

CRISPR technology is not new—in fact, Spanish researcher Francisco Mojica identified the first CRISPR sequence in 1993, discovering a technology that would revolutionize biotechnological research forever. Since then, CRISPR technology has made great strides within both definition and research. With the 2005 discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, a way to utilize CRISPR sequences to edit genetic chains, CRISPR-Cas9 has become a tool that is regularly used in most biological research laboratories around the world.

Guilford College’s own Assistant Professor in Biology, David East, is familiar with CRISPR technology. Defining CRISPR technology as a “process of editing a genome by removing, adding or modifying a DNA sequence,” East demonstrated the importance of this newly recognized breakthrough.

“CRISPR-Cas9 is a new ‘version’ of CRISPR for making these DNA edits derived from a bacterial genome that is naturally adept at modifying the DNA of viruses,” East said. “This is a much faster, more accurate and cheaper technology.”

Though Charpentier and Doudna did not “discover” CRISPR-Cas9 technology, they did discover the presence of a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA, in the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes (commonly known for causing the upper respiratory disease strep throat). Following this discovery, the scientists fused crRNA with tracrRNA to create a single guide RNA, or ‘sgRNA.’ SgRNA was then redesigned to create molecular scissors, a simple form of CRISPR-Cas9 technology that could be programmed to target a specific DNA sequence within a long DNA strand.

By using this new technology to design an RNA guide, Doudna and Charpentier were awarded for the development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology that would be far more accurate than previous technologies.

The reasons behind the significance of this advancement are quite relevant. Though CRISPR technology was previously used most frequently in agricultural research to help develop plants that withstand pests and drought, CRISPR technology has been utilized relatively recently within biomedical research.

Angela Zhou, information scientist at the American Chemical Society, says that CRISPR has recently been used to “modify immune cells to make them more effective at destroying cancer cells and to remove the HIV virus when it has integrated itself into the human genome.”

Within the pharmaceutical field, she adds, “CRISPR-based drugs are being developed to treat heart disease, blood disorders, and blindness.”

The relevance of Doudna and Charpentier’s breakthrough can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. With its crucial role in the research of developing diagnostic tests to detect COVID-19 within organisms, as well as helping search for molecules that the pathogen depends upon to replicate, CRISPR-Cas9 technology is critical to the solution of modern biomedical issues.

Doudna and Charpentier’s recognition marks not only the advancement of life-saving technology, but also the severance of the gender ties that have bound centuries of STEM discoveries made by female scientists into silence.

Though Marie Curie became the first female scientist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of elements radium and polonium, she was accompanied by her husband as a co-laureate. Since then, women have struggled to be individually represented in STEM fields.

Professor of Biology at Guilford College Dr. Melanie Lee-Brown is a modern biological expert who has carried out her entire career while fighting this misconception surrounding female scientists.

“Women are still considered to be the minority in STEM research fields even though we have made major contributions to many fields. Women of color are even less represented than they should be at the Ph.D. level,” Brown said. “For the last 19 years, I have strived to cultivate and support women and all underrepresented minorities toward building vibrant careers in science that included teaching them how to hold their work and abilities in higher esteem and to support each other. One of the reasons it has taken this long to see is that we had to reach a critical mass of women (and men who valued women’s contributions) in leadership positions to mentor other women. That is what has finally gotten us to the point of being able to have two women share this coveted prize.”