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  • Sara Archdeacon

The first ever two females to achieve a Nobel Prize in Chemistry: A win for women in STEM

Researchers Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. This advancement is said to be one of gene technology’s sharpest tools, allowing for the precise modification of DNA [1].

With CRISPR, animal, plant, and microorganism’s genetic code can be edited. This allows for things such as innovative plant breeding, cancer therapy development, and the possible elimination of genetic diseases [1].

“Using the genetic scissors, researchers can alter the genome of almost any living species.” [1]

In 2011, Doudna and Charpentier had been working in different countries. Charpentier had been leading a research group in Sweden, while Doudna was a skilled University of California, Berkeley research lead. Coincidentally, the pair happened to attend the same café during a conference in Puerto Rico. After introducing themselves, they agreed to meet the next day and began discussing their research. Charpentier soon suggested the possibility of collaboration. Little did they know that together they would help pioneer a revolutionary technique that would forever change life sciences and microbiology. [2]

The CRISPR technology itself springs from the immune system of bacterial cells. After surviving a viral infection, enzymes cut a segment of the virus’s DNA and it is added to the bacterium’s genome. This fragmented section of DNA is known as CRISPR. A CRISPR associated system (Cas) is positioned adjacently and codes for the cutting enzymes. Doudna and Charpentier were able to harness this natural technique and refine it into a tool that can be widely used with ease. [3]

Read their ground-breaking paper outlining these discoveries here:

Both Doudna and Charpentier were surprised and humbled when receiving the news of their victory. The last female-awarded Nobel prize in chemistry had been given over 50 years ago to Dorothy Hodgkin for her X-ray discoveries [4]. The preceding female recipient was Marie Curie, the award dating back another 53 years [4]. To be added to the growing list of recognized female scientists brings Doudna great joy. At a press briefing, she mentioned:

"It’s great for especially younger women to see this and to see that women’s work can be recognized, as much as men’s." [4]

These women have not only paved the way for extraordinary advancement in scientific fields, but they also embody the immense potential of women in STEM. Hopefully, the trend will continue, and women will make their mark alongside men throughout technical fields worldwide.


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