Browse By

Doudna and Charpentier Make Chemistry Nobel Prize History

Written By: Ashley Koca

On October 7th, 2020, Nobel Prize history was made. For the first time, two women share the prize in chemistry for their co-discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin are the recipients of this year’s prize along with 10 million krona, roughly 1.1 million US dollars, to share. 


The CRISPR-Cas9 system occurs naturally in the immune system of bacteria, storing portions of virus DNA in the CRISPR sequence. The Cas9 protein then uses the stored DNA to recognize further viral attacks and circumvent such attacks by cutting the virus’ own DNA. The Broad Institute credits the first characterization of the CRISPR locus to Francisco Mojica, all the way back to 1993. Mojica dubbed the system of adaptive immunity “CRISPR” and set the stage for the gene editing research-craze that was to come. It was not until 2011, that Charpentier’s research appeared on The Broad Institute’s “CRISPR Timeline,” acknowledged for her discovery of trans-activating CRISPR RNA (tracrRNA). This type of RNA helps guide the Cas9 protein to its target sequence. Further research conducted in 2012, by both Charpentier and Doudna, proved that the fusion of crRNA, CRISPR RNAs, and tracrRNA would create an individual synthetic guide RNA for the Cas9 protein. In the words of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “in an epoch-making experiment, they [Doudna and Charpentier] then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. . . so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.” 


The two scientists were awarded the Nobel on the basis of “the development of a method for genome editing” (Press release: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020), but credit for this development has long been disputed. While Doudna and Charpentier published their groundbreaking work in 2012, they were not alone; while the CRISPR buzz at the time was relatively small, there were still 126 other papers published that same year (Cohen). Other leading scientists in the field were George Church of Harvard University and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute — who were both contacted by Doudna and Charpentier about coming together to form a singular company. Collaboration between parties fell through soon after, in which a patent battle ensued. According to the American Bar Association, in February, 2017, the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO’s) Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) dismissed patent claims from UC Berkeley, in conjunction with Emmanuelle Charpentier and the University of Vienna, as well as the Broad Institute. The dispute between both parties was over “ the question of which team first invented the claimed applications of CRISPR/Cas9 systems in eukaryotic environments” (Stramiello). The team from UC Berkeley argued that their technology was all encompassing and could be used “in any environment” (Stamiello) whereas the Broad Institute argues that these systems cannot be reasonably applied in eukaryotic environments. Ultimately, there arose no clear winner from these disputes — yielding a draw, of sorts. 


Despite there being a patent-stagnation in regards to CRISPR technology, Doudna and Charpentier have been credited for jumpstarting the explosion of CRISPR gene editing. With applications in fields ranging from agriculture to medicine, there is no telling what dreams this technology can make realities. But, caution should be taken when dealing with revolutionary science — there are always two heads to every Janus coin. While the benefits of this research seem to be innumerable, there must be measures put in place to restrict certain applications of this technology. As the world saw in 2018, with the first gene-edited babies, the misuse of CRISPR could lead to a dark new age in which parents could opt to create “designer babies” — bringing forth an intense ethical debate reminiscent of science fiction. From BioHackers to rogue scientists, who is to tell what is to come? For the time being, prize-winner Doudna is a fervent advocate for the use of CRISPR in basic biology research while urging for the scientific community to improve guidelines in regards to human gene-editing. 


Work Cited

CRISPR Timeline. (2018, December 07). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

CRISPR: The New Frontier of Biotechnology Innovation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Jon CohenOct. 7, 2., Robert F. ServiceOct. 22, 2., Lucy HicksOct. 20, 2., Lucy HicksOct. 15, 2., Lucy HicksSep. 23, 2., & Rasha AridiSep. 23, 2. (2020, October 09). CRISPR, the revolutionary genetic ‘scissors,’ honored by Chemistry Nobel. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2020, from





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *