A “Cut” of History: Why a Women-Only Team’s Chemistry Nobel is So Significant

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A “Cut” of History: Why a Women-Only Team’s Chemistry Nobel is So Significant

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

For the first time in the history of Nobel science, a prize has been awarded to a women-only team. Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Chemistry Prize for the gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9 DNA snipping ‘scissors’. This makes the French-American duo just the sixth and seventh women to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Acknowledged as one of gene technology’s sharpest tools, Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, is convinced that CRISPR-Cas9 DNA snipping ‘scissors’ “will provide humankind with great opportunities”. The technology has already been incorporated into the study of life sciences and is a leading contributor to new cancer therapies. The tool, according to the Nobel jury, will allow researchers to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms “with extremely high precision”.

It was while researching a common harmful bacteria that Charpentier, 51, stumbled upon a previously unknown molecule, a part of the bacteria’s ancient immune system that disarms viruses by cutting off parts of their DNA. After publishing her research on the study in 2011, Charpentier teamed up with Doudna, 56, to recreate the bacteria’s ‘genetic scissors’. The purpose was to simplify the tool so it was easier to use and apply to other genetic material. By further reprogramming the scissors to cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site, the CRISPR-Cas9 tool has transformed the concept of DNA editing.

While the technique has been a strong contender for a Nobel in the past, Charpentier still believes the decision has come by as a surprise. “Strangely enough I was told a number of times [it might happen] but when it happens you are very surprised and you feel that it’s not real,” she said in a telephone interview. “But obviously it is real so I have to get used to it now,” she added.

Although it’s being lauded as a technique that can edit any genome “to fix genetic damage”, Gustafsson points out that the powerful tool could also lead to malicious outcomes if used by rogue practitioners. Thus, it’s important that the tool is used with caution and “great care”.

Meanwhile, Charpentier, who will share the prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million) with Doudna, hopes that this achievement will inspire young girls world over. In 1911, Marie Curie became the first woman scientist to win a Nobel Chemistry Prize for her discovery of the radioactive elements radium and polonium. We hope more women scientists can make the cut in the future.

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