CRISPR gene editing pioneers win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The technology promises to revolutionize medicine and biology.

MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images

CRISPR gene editing promises to revolutionize medical science, and two of its pioneers are getting a prestigious award for their efforts. Emmanuelle Charpentier (shown at left) and Jennifer Doudna (right) have received the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their roles in discovering the CRISPR/Cas9 “genetic scissors” used to cut DNA. Charpentier found the key tracrRNA molecule that bacteria use to cut and disable viruses, and collaborated with RNA expert Doudna to eventually ‘reprogram’ the scissors to cut any DNA molecule at a specific point, making the gene editing method viable.

As with some scientific discoveries, there’s some controversy. While the team including Charpentier and Doudna published its work in June 2012, seven months before a Broad Institute-led group released its own findings, it didn’t include certain aspects Broad used when it started patenting gene editing methods in 2014. That led to a patent battle that’s still raging today, with Broad getting “priority” for its patents even as it as denied several motions that could give Charpentier and Doudna an advantage. Broad has already asked to “move beyond litigation” and find a more peaceful settlement.

Legal disputes aside, there’s little doubt that the work of Charpentier and Doudna has had a dramatic effect on medicine and other life sciences. While it’s still early days, CRISPR editing is already being used to fight cancer and could eventually be used to cure inherited diseases. Researchers have also had success developing hardier crops that could reduce food shortages and better withstand disease.

There have been ethical issues. A Chinese scientist claimed to have edited the genes of human embryos using CRISPR to protect them from HIV, raising concerns about the safety (there may have been unintended consequences) and a debate about the very idea of editing people. There’s a worry gene editing could lead to a Gattaca-style obsession with genetic perfection that destroys difference and messes with natural evolution. This isn’t to say CRISPR editing is a threat, but humanity may need to answer important ethical questions before the technique is adopted on a large scale.