Isaiah Hazelwood, Science Staff Editor
Awarded to a person, group of up to three people, or an organization, the Nobel Prizes honour monumental discoveries and achievements. While the Peace and Literature prizes acknowledge top activists and writers, the scientific categories of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine have recognized some of science’s most important advancements, including the discovery of the atom’s structure, the development of quantum mechanics, the establishment of key principles of molecular biology, and the discovery of insulin – uncovered here at the University of Toronto in 1921 by Frederick Banting. Trinity Times reported all the 2020 Nobel Prizes and Laureates [here], explaining their background and significance, but one was particularly significant and warranted its own article: the Prize in Chemistry, awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 method of genome editing.
CRISPR originated from bacteria, where it serves as a very basic immune system to protect them from viral infection. The bacteria keeps a record of past infection as short segments of virus DNA between short repetitive sequences (termed Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, giving the CRISPR abbreviation), and this record of viral DNA guides CRISPR-Associated (abbreviated Cas) proteins to destroy any matching viral DNA which enters the cell. Cas9 is one of these CRISPR-associated proteins which can be easily modified in the lab to target any sequence of DNA. It offers the ability to remove genes by cutting them out, insert genes by cutting a space for them, or replace a gene by doing both. Compared to past methods of gene editing, it is precise, easy, and has relatively controllable effects. CRISPR/Cas9 is already being used to advance genome research, create genetically modified animal models for diseases, and develop faster-growing disease-resistant herbicide-resistant crops. Clinical research using CRISPR/Cas9 to cure inherited genetic diseases is ongoing, giving the possibility of treating otherwise deadly untreatable conditions but also highlighting the risks associated with the ethical implications of human genetic modification. The moral dilemmas of gene editing began last year as Chinese scientist He Jiankui suffered international criticism and was jailed after genetically modifying two twins to delete the gene allowing HIV to infect cells.
However, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is more significant than solely honouring the monumental discovery of CRISPR/Cas9. The award was given to the two lead authors of the original CRISPR paper, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, splitting the prize between two women, a first for the Nobel Prizes in sciences. While past prizes have been awarded to individual women researchers or jointly awarded to a woman and a man, Charpentier and Doudna were the first women to jointly receive a science Nobel Prize. Charpentier, a French microbiologist and geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and Doudna, an American biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, have shared many other awards for their CRISPR research, including a spot on Time Magazine’s 2015 list of 100 most influential people, the 2015 Breakthrough prize in Life Sciences, the 2016 Canada Gairdner International Award, and the 2020 Wolf Prize in Medicine. They are both members of the US National Academy of Sciences and are members of other European and American scientific associations respectively.
Science has long been a male-dominated field, with women representing under 30% of global researchers, and the science Nobel Prizes have been even more male-dominated, with women representing 12 of 222 Medicine and Physiology laureates, 7 of 186 Chemistry laureates, and 4 of 216 Physics laureates. While 3 men have received multiple Nobel Prizes, Marie Curie (who was also the first women laureate) is the only woman with that accomplishment. Three women, 14% of all women laureates, have been the sole recipients of science Nobel prizes, while the other 18 have shared their prize with another person; in comparison, 145 men, 24% of all men laureates, have been the sole recipient of science Nobel while the other 448 shared their prize.
The Nobel Committee has made slight progress in representing women over time. The first half of the twentieth century had 11 women laureates with 3 in science, while the second half of the twentieth century had 18 women laureates with 7 in science. The past two decades alone have almost exceeded the last century with 28 women laureates, of which 12 were in science. This has increased even further in recent years as every year since 2013 featured at least one woman laureate. Charpentier and Doudna’s 2020 Nobel in Chemistry was accompanied by Andrea Ghez, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, jointly receiving the Physics prize alongside Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel, and Louise Glück, an American poet at Yale, receiving the Literature Prize. However, despite these steps toward gender equality, the Nobel prizes – and science as a whole – still require further representation of women and their accomplishments.