The wait was finally over. On 7th October, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, where the Physics and Physiology Prizes were awarded a few days ago.
Two women, Emmanuelle Charpenteir and Jennifer A. Doudna, were jointly awarded the Prize for their “discovery of a method for genome editing” also known as the CRISPR- Cas9 Technology. CRISPR-Cas9 , with CRISPR abbreviated to “Clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats”, is a system of molecules that is able to edit a DNA molecule at a particular site.
DNA is a complex biomolecule composed of billions of particles known as bases which writes the code of life. Speaking more on the discovery, the CRISPR technology was originally used by bacteria to inactivate invading viruses by cutting its DNA.
Emmanuel and Jennifer teamed up to research this technology and discovered how it can be used as “genetic scissors” to edit sections of a genome. After surviving a viral infection, bacterial DNA stores a piece of viral DNA to defend itself from future invasions.
This is done in specific portions of a DNA molecule called CRISPRs. This region copies itself into a CRISPR RNA which is cut down in smaller bits, each corresponding to a specific virus from the past. The cutting mechanism of the RNA strand is something Emmanuelle discussed.
According to her, a small molecule in a bacterial cell called tracer RNA would bind to CRISPR RNA and together with proteins – Cas9 and RNaseIII- would divide the long molecule into smaller pieces. Later, alongside Jennifer, she found that CRISPR RNA along with Cas9 protein formed a genetic molecular scissor and by using CRISPR part of the complex, it would search for similar viral DNA in a bacterial cell to cut its genome and disarm it.
Using variant combinations, they created an elegant genetic system that could be used to cleave any DNA molecule and similarly it could be used to weave any DNA molecule. “Now CRISPR is used for generating genomic alteration in any cells and in any organisms”, said Senior Laboratory Research Scientist, Dr Christophe Galichet, at The Francis Crick Institute.
After they published their paper in 2011, the application of CRISPR-Cas9 has skyrocketed. “Only imagination can set the limit for what this tool can do in future”, said, Goran K. Hansson, a member of the Nobel Prize Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
From their use in plant breeding to treatment of several genetic diseases including sickle cell anaemia, it is widely in use by researchers and doctors these days. CRISPR’s enormous power “means that we need to use it with great care,” says, Claes Gustafsson, a member of the Nobel Prize Committee.