Reengineering Life is a series from Future Human about the astonishing ways genetic technology is changing humanity and the world around us.
When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on October 7 that she had won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Jennifer Doudna was still fast asleep at home in California. It was just before 3 a.m. when a phone call woke her up. It was a reporter from Nature, asking if she could comment on the award.
“Well, who won it?” Doudna asked.
Doudna, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, PhD, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, share the award for the discovery of the gene-editing technology CRISPR. The two biochemists began collaborating in 2011 and just a year later published a groundbreaking paper on CRISPR, which has revolutionized our ability to edit genes.
Short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR is actually a naturally occurring bacterial immune system. When viruses attack bacteria, bacteria in turn grab snippets of genetic material from their viral invaders and incorporate these bits into their own DNA. This helps bacteria recognize viruses later on and thwart future invaders. Bacteria do this by producing an RNA molecule that acts as a guide, which cuts up the viral genome.
Doudna and Charpentier realized they could harness this cutting ability to edit genes in just about any living thing. In their 2012 paper, they described how this bacterial system could be used as “DNA scissors,” and the gene-editing technology CRISPR was born.
Declared as one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century, CRISPR is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than previous gene-editing systems and has since become ubiquitous in labs around the world. Scientists are using it in an attempt to treat serious genetic diseases, restore eyesight in people with a type of inherited blindness, engineer crops that are more…