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Jennifer Doudna

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2020

The Crispr-Cas9 gene editing tool has revolutionised science, enabling researchers to make very precise changes to genomes for a variety of reasons, including to design crops that can better withstand drought, insects and pests, treat diseases such as cancer, sickle cell disease and hereditary blindness, and more. For co-creating this powerful tool, Professor Jennifer Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Scientists had previously found that bacteria harvest bits of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from viruses that attack them. Bacteria store these bits, called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or Crispr, to recognise the attackers in the future so that they can deploy specialised enzymes, including one called Cas9, to destroy them. 

In a landmark paper in 2012, Professor Doudna and her fellow Nobel Laureate Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier described how they had isolated the components of this Crispr-Cas9 system, adapted them to work in a test tube and found that the system could be programmed to cut specific DNA segments, in effect creating a programmable gene-editing tool far more precise than existing methods.

“Using the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks,” said the Nobel Prize committee. “These scissors have contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

In 2017, Professor Doudna co-wrote a book, titled “A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution”, to delve into the field’s history, her work on the Crispr-Cas9 tool, and its promise and peril. She has also co-founded five biotechnology firms that are commercialising gene-editing technology. 

She has made other critical breakthroughs in biochemistry and genetics, including uncovering the basic structure and function of the first ribozyme, a type of ribonucleic acid that helps to catalyse chemical reactions. Apart from the Nobel Prize, she has been awarded the Canada Gairdner International Award, Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Gruber Prize in Genetics and many other honours.

Professor Doudna is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair Professor in Biomedical and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Founder and President of the Innovative Genomics Institute, among other appointments.