The Women Who Broke the Barriers

The 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany and Jennifer A. Doudna of University of California, Berkeley, USA for their work in the development of a method for genome editing. It was history in the making. For the first time the prize has been won by two women, and it increased the list of women Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry from 5 to 7. To understand what is unique about this year’s Nobel Prize, we must take a leap backwards to understand the significance of this work and the award.

The method of genome editing discovered by these two outstanding scientists was CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). CRISPR gene editing is a genetic engineering process in molecular biology by which the genomes of living organisms may be modified. It is based on a simplified version of the bacterial CRISPR-Cas9 antiviral defense system. But what is the uniqueness of this method that it won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry?

Let us delve into the application of this life defining technique. CRISPR technology has been applied in the food and farming industries to engineer probiotic cultures and to immunize industrial cultures (for instance, in yogurt) against infections. It is also used in crops to enhance yield, drought tolerance and nutritional homes. By the end of 2014, some 1000 research papers had been published that mentioned CRISPR. The technology had been used to functionally inactivate genes in human cell lines and cells, to modify yeasts used to make biofuels and to genetically modify crop strains. CRISPR can also be used to change mosquitos so they cannot transmit diseases such as malaria. In July 2019, CRISPR was used to experimentally treat a patient with a genetic disorder. The patient was a 34-year-old woman with sickle cell disease. In March 2020, CRISPR-modified virus was injected into a patient’s eye in an attempt to treat Leber congenital amaurosis. CRISPR-based re-evaluations of claims for gene-disease relationships have led to the discovery of potentially important anomalies. In the future, CRISPR gene editing could potentially be used to create new species or revive extinct species from closely related ones. Does all of it sound straight out of science fiction movies? Then we need to talk about the brilliant minds behind this path breaking discovery.

In 1968, Emanulle Charpentier was born in France. As luck would have it, this future Nobel Laureate started her proper scientific journey by studying biochemistry, genetics and microbiology at a place named after the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Science along her husband: the Pierre and Marie Curie University. In 1995, she earned her PhD in antibiotic resistance from the Pasteur Institute. Her pursuit for scientific excellence took her to USA, where she worked as Postdoctoral fellow and Research Assistant at Rockefeller University and New York University Medical Centre. Spending five years in USA, she returned to Europe where she had her first stint as lab head and a guest professor at the Institute of Microbiology and Genetics, University of Vienna. Her next stop was at Sweden as the lab head and associate professor at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS), Umeå University. Then she halted her whirlwind scientific tour while in Germany. After brief tenures at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig and the Hannover Medical School, in 2015, Charpentier accepted an offer from the German Max Planck Society to become a scientific member of the society and a director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. Since 2016, she has been an Honorary Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, and in 2018, she led the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens as the Founding and Acting Director.

Born in 1964 to parents who well established in academics and brought up in the exotic locales of Hawaii islands, Jennier Doudna was fascinated by nature right from her childhood. Nature built her sense of curiosity and her desire to understand the underlying biological mechanisms of life. This was coupled with the atmosphere of intellectual pursuit that her parents encouraged at home. Her father enjoyed reading about science and filled the home with many books on popular science. When Doudna was in the sixth grade, he gave her a copy of James Watson’s 1968 book on the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, which was a major inspiration. Doudna also developed her interest in science and mathematics in school. While she attended Hilo High School, Doudna’s interest in science was nurtured by her 10th-grade chemistry teacher, Ms. Jeanette Wong, whom she has routinely cited as a significant influence in sparking her nascent scientific curiosity. Doudna was an undergraduate student at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where she studied biochemistry. Chemistry professors Fred Grieman and Corwin Hansch at Pomona had a major impact on her. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Biochemistry in 1985. She chose Harvard Medical School for her doctoral study and earned a Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology in 1989. Her Ph.D. dissertation was on a system that increased the efficiency of a self-replicating catalytic RNA and was supervised by Chemistry Nobel Laureate Jack W. Szostak. She was Lucille P. Markey Postdoctoral Scholar in Biomedical Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she worked with another Chemistry Nobel Laureate Thomas Cech. Doudna joined Yale’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry as an assistant professor in 1994. In 2002, she accepted a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley, as a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, joining her husband Jamie Cate who was a professor there. As of 2020, Doudna leads the Innovative Genomics Institute (a joint center of University of California Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco), holds the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Professorship in Biomedicine and Health, and is the chair of the Chancellor’s Advisor Committee on Biology.

These were the stories of two minds behind this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But how did they come together is an entirely different one. At a 2011 American Society for Microbiology conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Emanulle Charpentier met structural biologist Jennifer Doudna. Doudna was immediately charmed. “I loved her intensity, which was apparent from the moment I met her,” she says. They began a collaboration that swiftly led to a key discovery. The discovery made by both of them has since then been adopted by the scientific communities around the world and it eventually led to the winning of the Nobel Prize.

This is a moment of triumph for the world that such an era defining work has come out of human ingenuity. But truly this prize seems even more significant because it has been won exclusively by two women. It’s a beacon of hope to the billions of girls and women deprived of the light of education. It’s a reassuring call to the ladies who were shown the way to the kitchen and denied of higher intellectual pursuits to safeguard the patriarchal social order. The glass ceiling has been shattered, and now the wide-open blue sky is visible. It’s now time for women to fly away breaking all barriers that chains them by male insecurities.

-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at and Senior Research Fellow at IACS Kolkata)

Picture Credits: Alexander Heinl/dpa via AP

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