Their research has made it possible to rewrite the DNA: the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to the French Emmanuelle Charpentier and the American Jennifer Doudna, two geneticists who have developed “molecular scissors” capable of modifying human genes , a revolutionary breakthrough.
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This award is given to them for the development of “a method of editing genes”, with “a tool to rewrite the code of life,” said the jury in Stockholm when announcing the award.
The Frenchwoman, 51, and the American, 56, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel in chemistry since 1901.
“The ability to cut DNA wherever you want has revolutionized molecular science. Only the imagination can set the limit on the use of the tool, “praised the Nobel jury.
In June 2012, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna and colleagues described in the journal Science a new tool capable of simplifying genome modification. The mechanism is called Crispr / Cas9 and is nicknamed “molecular scissors”.
Gene therapy involves inserting a normal gene into cells that have a faulty gene, such as a Trojan horse, so that it does the job that that bad gene does not. But Crispr goes further: instead of adding a new gene, the tool modifies an existing gene.
It is easy to use, inexpensive, and allows scientists to cut DNA exactly where they want it, such as creating or correcting a genetic mutation and treating rare diseases.
However, the technique is still far from foolproof and raises fear among sorcerers’ apprentices, such as the Chinese scientist who caused a scandal by using it on human embryos during in vitro fertilization that gave birth to twins.
He tried to create an HIV resistance mutation in them, but the Crispr “scissors” caused other mutations by mistake, the effect on health of which remains unknown.
CRISPR-Cas9 technology is also at the center of a fierce patent battle in the United States, between the two laureates and the young American researcher of Chinese origin Feng Zhang.
6th and 7th award-winning women
While the Nobels often reward decades-old discoveries, the “molecular scissors” are considered to be among the great scientific advances of the past ten years.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna thus double a string of septuagenarians and octogenarians, at a price that cannot in principle be posthumous.
Since the development of this revolutionary tool for modifying the genome, the two researchers have already received awards: the Breakthrough Prize (2015), the scientific prize of the Princess of Asturias (2015) or the Kavli prize for nanosciences. in Norway (2018).
The 2019 chemistry prize was awarded to a trio: the American John Goodenough (crowned at 97, a record), the Briton Stanley Whittingham and the Japanese Akira Yoshino, for the invention of lithium-ion batteries, today ‘ hui present in many everyday technologies.
Before Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, only five women have won the Nobel in chemistry since 1901: Marie Curie (1911), her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1964), Ada Yonath (2009) and Frances Arnold (2018).
Medicine opened the 2020 Nobel Balls on Monday with the coronations of Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice, alongside Briton Michael Houghton, for their role in the discovery of the virus responsible for hepatitis C.
The physics prize on Tuesday won the Briton Roger Penrose, the German Reinhard Genzel and the American Andrea Ghez, three pioneers of space research on “black holes”.
The Literature Prize, the most anticipated mainstream event with Friday Peace in Oslo, will be announced by the Swedish Academy on Thursday.
Critics interviewed by AFP referred to about fifteen nobelisables, with profiles ranging from Caribbean-American Jamaica Kincaid to Albanian Ismaïl Kadaré, including Canadian Anne Carson and Frenchman Michel Houellebecq.
As for peace, the competition is particularly open this year, but the experts lean more for the freedom of the press or for Greta Thunberg and the young people engaged in the defense of the climate.
The more recently created Savings Prize ends the season on Monday.