In a year when a virus has laid waste to human hubris and capability, the Nobel prize in chemistry to French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier and American biochemist Jennifer Doudna is a reminder of the irrepressible ambition of science. In 2012, the two scientists collaborated to create the CRISPR/Cas9 scissors — a sharp gene-editing tool that has turned out to be more of a Swiss knife, given its precision in changing the DNA of plants and microorganisms and wide applicability in medical science.
This story began in Charpentier’s lab, with a microscopic view of the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. What the scientist saw was a bacterial immune system that repeatedly went to battle by shearing off invasive viruses with a sharp bit of RNA. The French scientist collaborated with Doudna to replicate this natural defence mechanism in a test tube, and ended up with a tool to edit gene sequences. The implications for cancer research, in finding cures of genetically-transmitted diseases as well as the murky possibilities of it being hijacked by eugenicists dreaming of designer babies, were mind-boggling.
The mind also struggles to come to grips with another fact: That only seven women have been awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry since 1901, including this year’s awardees. In an interview last year, Doudna described herself as “a budding feminist”, who had gone from believing that she did not want “advantages or disadvantages based on my gender” in her 40s, to realising in her 50s that the formidable prejudice loaded against women would not go away without systemic changes. Indeed, the last revolutionary breakthrough involving the gene was built on the work of Rosalind Franklin, a British woman scientist whose work was written out of history and science, as the Nobel for medicine went to James Watson and Francis Crick. From Franklin to Charpentier-Doudna, the tide is, hopefully, turning.
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