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Throwback Thursday: Science Edition: Genome Editing

Welcome to today’s Throwback Thursday, where we’re going to be looking at how two female scientists pioneered a revolutionary gene-editing technology and won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it! A good way to round up Women’s History Month, don’t you think? Let’s find out more…

Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, and Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, are the two Nobel laureates credited with developing the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool, technology which swept through laboratories across the world in the 2010s. Described as ‘genetic scissors’ and ‘a tool for rewriting the code of life’, it allows for precise edits to the genome and has countless applications.

The development of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool was built upon CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology, so named in 2005 for a microbial ‘immune system’ first identified by microbiologist, Francisco Mojica in 1993. The naturally occurring CRISPR system provides bacteria and archaea, or prokaryotes, with the ability to recognise exact sequences that match bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) and utilise the sequences to destroy them using specialised enzymes.

These enzymes, known as CRISPR-associated proteins (Cas), had been identified by previous researchers. Whilst working at the University of Vienna and later at the Umea Centre for Microbial Research in Sweden, Charpentier found another component within the CRISPR system. This was an RNA molecule which is key in bacteriophage recognition sequences that cause disease in humans.

Charpentier reported her discovery in 2011, the same year she confirmed a collaboration with Doudna. In 2012, the duo released a paper showing how they had isolated the components in the CRISPR-Cas9 system, adapting them to function within a test tube environment and proving that the system could be manipulated to cut areas in isolated DNA. This was their programmable gene-editing system. The technology caught on very quickly among others in the field and was used in a variety of applications, such as medicine, basic science, agriculture and more.

The development of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool over the past decade has really taken off and added incredible value to many applications. The unique aspect that CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing brings to science is the ease and versatility of the technique. Researchers have already used the technology to develop genome-edited crops, insects, genetic models, and experimental human therapies. Trials are in process to treat sickle cell anaemia, hereditary blindness, and cancer. Genome editing is a massive leap for mankind and is certainly deserving of a Nobel Prize.