One of the most productive research partnerships in the recent history of science began on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011.
Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist then working in Sweden at Umea University, and Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, had just met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico. Walking around the old town of San Juan, they discussed the way bacteria defend themselves against infection, by targeting and chopping up the DNA of attacking viruses.
This aspect of the bacterial immune system — a combination of genes and enzymes known as Crispr (short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) — had been an obscure curiosity in microbiology. But Profs Charpentier and Doudna saw how it might be transformed into powerful molecular scissors to cut and edit genes in any living creature.
Strolling around the colonial streets, the pair agreed to work together on Crispr. Their “short and intense” transatlantic collaboration, as Prof Charpentier put it this week, had within two years reprogrammed the bacterial scissors into a widely applicable research tool that very quickly took life sciences into a new epoch.
Although Nobel Prizes are often given for work done several decades earlier, Crispr’s significance became clear so fast that observers started tipping its developers for an award as early as 2015. This year, the prediction came true.
On Wednesday, Profs Charpentier and Doudna shared the SKr10m ($1.1m) chemistry prize for creating a gene editor that “has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to groundbreaking new medical treatments”, as Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel chemistry committee, put it.
Biologists around the world rose to acclaim the announcement, with an enthusiasm that is rare if not unprecedented for a Nobel science prize — and not just because Crispr has made it so much easier for them to manipulate genes in living cells. The two new laureates are popular personalities, generous with their time to help colleagues and promote science more widely.
Even the bitter and unresolved dispute over Crispr’s patent rights between UC Berkeley, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, did not spoil the goodwill. Many had predicted that the Broad’s senior researcher Feng Zhang, who was first to show that Crispr worked in mammalian cells, would share the prize. But he was left out.
Eric Lander, director of the Broad and a champion of Prof Zhang’s work, sent the laureates a gracious message: “Huge congratulations to Drs Charpentier and Doudna . . . It’s exciting to see the endless frontiers of science continue to expand, with big impacts for patients.”
The two women have contrasting academic backgrounds. Prof Doudna, 56, has spent her whole career in the US and been a biochemistry professor at Berkeley since 2002. Prof Charpentier, 51, is more restless, working in eight different institutions in five countries since obtaining her PhD from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. She moved from Sweden to Germany in 2013 and is currently director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.
But they share a passionate devotion to their research, which showed itself during the peak years of their collaboration at a distance of 8,000km. “It was an extraordinary time for me,” Prof Charpentier said this week. “I was up all day and all night, living both in Umea time and California time.” Prof Doudna also recalls the period as a “wild ride” of emails, Skypeing and phone calls as they shared their results and wrote scientific papers together. The pair are still in touch but no longer collaborate directly.
Each has co-founded companies commercialising the technology, including Crispr Therapeutics, Intellia Therapeutics, Mammoth Biosciences, and Scribe Therapeutics. Some of these start-ups have already begun clinical trials, editing patients’ genes to treat diseases such as inherited blood disorders.
In 2018, when He Jiankui revealed the birth in China of the world’s first gene-edited babies, with DNA manipulated to prevent future infection with HIV/Aids, Prof Doudna led the worldwide chorus of scientific denunciation of his experimentation with human embryos. Unlike gene editing of individual patients, this risked passing on unintended changes to future generations.
As the first pair of women to share the Nobel chemistry prize, and just the sixth and seventh female winners since its inauguration in 1901, both are happy to be standard bearers for women in science. It “is a very important message . . . recognition is independent of gender”, says Prof Charpentier.
Just five years or so after labs across the life sciences started to adopt Crispr on a large scale, the technology is in its infancy. There are still challenges to overcome, Prof Doudna points out, such as improving the efficiency with which Crispr molecules edit their target cells and ensuring that the procedure has no unwanted side-effects.
But the possibilities, from agriculture to medicine, are endless, she adds. When the two women set out on their San Juan walk nine years ago, they saw that Crispr would be “a big deal”. It turned out even bigger than imagined.