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Two female scientists make history in more ways than one: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry, as pioneers in CRISPR-Cas Technology.

By Mariana Alonso Riquelme, Mexican biotechnology engineer student / OCTOBER, 2020

“Now and again a scientific discovery is made that changes the whole course of the development of a subject”, or sometimes, even the course of history, if I may add. This was a bold statement made once by the scientists and genetic engineering writer, Desmond Nicholl (2008). In the case of the CRISPR-Cas “scissors” of DNA, and its impact on the development of biotechnology, this statement is undoubtedly true. 

Ever since Mary Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium back in 1911, The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has only been awarded to six other women, whilst the count for male winners is 185. Last Wednesday, October 7th,  the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to the brilliant Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, for the discovery of one of the most revolutionary advances in the century: the genome editing method,  known as CRISPR-Cas. This was also the first time in history that a prize such as this was given to two women. 

If you are not familiar with the applications of CRISPR-Cas9 or if you’ve never even heard of the term, you should know it is a very simple to use and yet very powerful tool in biotechnology. It is often referred to as “the scissors of the code of life”.  This novel technology is based on the use of a protein complex, which cuts the DNA molecule in any sites of our desire, in order to further modify the genetic code. This is a technique that has already been used to study the possible treatment of certain cancer types, the cure of blindness and also sickle-cell anemia. It has also been used to genetically enhance certain agricultural crops and even pigs! 

These two scientists opened the pandora box to a new world in biotechnology, but they also showed responsibility about the consequences of their discovery from an ethical standpoint, which is why they promote the creation of committees to question its ethical use. Doudna who has taken on the most public part in her team, has made many attempts to warn the scientific community and society in general about the problems of using CRISPR technology to tamper with the genetic code of humans. Both Doudna and Charpentier have made themselves present in the media to educate the public; for instance, they are both featured in the documentary Human Nature, talking about the benefits and problematics of their discovery. This social conscience is very exemplary seeing, as in most places around the world, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 on humans is still illegal. 

Despite the fact that this historical moment seems like it only gives us a reason to celebrate another accomplishment of women in STEM, there are some people in the scientific community, especially men, who find this recognition to be controversial. When asking my biotechnology professor what were his thoughts on the recent announcement of the Nobel Prize, he suggested that it was a decision made by the Royal Swedish Academy, based solely on the recent “trend” of feminism. Apparently, to some people, the women that made the proposition that CRISPR-Cas9 was a genomic tool that can be used to edit genomes, which is now considered one of the most significant discoveries in the history of genetic engineering, is not of enough value to be awarded a Nobel Prize. 

It would not be the first time that the work of a scientist is downplayed, arguing that the progressive climate is pressuring organizations to “blindly” recognize the work of women. However, what seems most controversial to the general public is that this prize was the first in history to be split between two women. Specially, since the Nobel Prizes can be given out to a maximum of three scientists. It seems unthinkable to many that this time, no man was in the list of winners. 

Now, it is a fact that men and women both contributed to the development of a functioning CRISPR-Cas machinery. Actually, CRISPR was first studied in 1987 by a male scientist called Yoshizumi Ishino; however, it was not until 2011 that the final piece to the puzzle in the mechanism was discovered by Charpentier and Doudna. Those among the people who may have been left out of the prize is Virginijus Šikšnys, a Lithuanian Biochemist who made similar discoveries as both female scientists. Similarly, there is Feng Zhang, an MIT scientist who was also amongst the first to study genome editing in human cells with the use of such technology. He has even been in a dispute with both Charpentier and Doudna over the patent rights of CRISPR-Cas. However, in a world so full of talented scientists and researchers, it is hard to find only one person responsible for discovering something as powerful as this genetic tool. As it has been the case of several scientists in history, some must be overshadowed by others, even when the entire scientific community contributed somehow; in this case it is only fair that the two brilliant women who were the first to publish about such a discovery, and who have taken on the responsibility of their discoveries and talked to the public about the importance of this technological breakthrough, are the ones recognized with such an honor as a Nobel Prize. And yet, it took the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences almost a decade to decide that two women’s work was worthy of their prize. 

We are in the midst of a feminist global revolution and women are starting to take on the public sphere of life in a greater manner than ever. As a female scientist myself, I have lived through the inequalities and disadvantages of the patriarchal society. I have also been asked if I’m “in the correct career”, or if I would rather want “to study something more feminine”, or even having some professor question my skills in a lab, just because of my gender.  I believe that it is important for female scientists to start taking on the public platforms and thrive. Women such as Charpentier and Doudna are the ones that inspire me to continue in this path. They showed millions of women that despite all controversial thoughts, we are still phenomenal and capable scientists and if we continue to push, something as big as winning a Nobel Prize can be a possibility. 

If you want to read more about the method or application of CRISPR-Cas, we encourage you to watch this video by McGovern Institute, for brain research at MIT. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pp17E4E-O8 

Bibliography: 

https://www.theguardian.com/science/video/2020/oct/07/im-proud-of-my-gender-two-women-win-nobel-chemistry-prize-video#:~:text=Emmanuelle%20Charpentier%20and%20Jennifer%20Doudna,microorganisms%20with%20extremely%20high%20precision.

https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/10/07/1009601/nobel-prize-chemistry-crispr-gene-editing-doudna-charpentier/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hughes-Medical-Institute