The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly awarded on Wednesday to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their 2012 work on the development of Crispr-Cas9, a method for genome editing. The announcement marks the first time a science Nobel has been awarded to two women.
“This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of life,” Goran K. Hansson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said as he announced the names of the laureates.
Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna, only the fifth and sixth women to win the chemistry prize, pioneered early work on Crispr-Cas9, a kind of genetic scissors that allows researchers to alter the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. Since then, it has been used in numerous scientific applications, from genetically modifying crops to developing cures-in-progress for conditions like sickle cell disease and hereditary blindness.
Fast, efficient and economic, Crispr “solves problems in every field of biology,” said Angela Zhou, an information scientist at the Chemical Abstracts Service at the American Chemical Society.
While the two scientists developed Crispr for general use, some of the system’s specific applications have become ensnared in thorny ethical debates around the genetic alteration of human embryos. In 2018, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, announced that he had used the technology to edit the genes of two babies in an attempt to make them resistant to H.I.V. Dr. He’s experiments were decried by many in the scientific community as irresponsible and dangerous because of the risk that the children may have suffered side effects from the procedure, as well as Dr. He’s lack of transparency.
Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said, “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all.”
Who are the winners?
Dr. Charpentier, who is French, is the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Dr. Doudna (the first syllable rhymes with loud) is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. They are the third and fourth women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the 21st century, out of more than 50 recipients.
Dr. Charpentier said she was “happy” to be one of the few female recipients of the prize, and hoped the win would be inspiring to young women “to follow the path of science.” The joint win between two women in academic disciplines still dominated by men, she added, “can provide a really strong message for young girls.”
Dr. Charpentier, 51, and Dr. Doudna, 56, met at a cafe in Puerto Rico in 2011 on the margins of a conference they were both attending, the Nobel committee said. They first published their discovery of the Crispr-Cas 9 genetic scissors in 2012.