2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to RNA Society members, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier
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Written by Erik Sontheimer

The RNA Community was elated for a second time this week when Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were recognized with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing.” That method, of course, is CRISPR-Cas9, which uses the machinery from a natural, adaptive immune system that bacteria and archaea employ to defend themselves against viruses. Their 2012 discovery was not the first instance of genome editing, given that earlier technologies had already arisen using proteins as genome editing platforms. But CRISPR-Cas9 is different in a crucial way familiar to RNA scientists: it employs an exchangeable RNA guide, rather than hard-wired protein determinants, to identify the DNA targets that it will bind and cut, thereby inducing cellular DNA repair pathways that can be co-opted for editing. This crucial feature of an RNA guide – the use of RNA “software” that programs a protein “hardware” to engage the intended DNA targets by the straightforward rules of base pairing – democratized genome editing in a manner that immediately transformed huge swaths of biomedical research and promises to do likewise for agriculture, medicine and public health.

The field of CRISPR research is barely 15 years old, and its early pioneers (including Charpentier and Doudna) chose to pursue it out of curiosity about the natural biological world, not because it was an obvious path to a world-changing technology for editing genomes. But a world-changing genome editing technology is exactly what it became, unbidden. CRISPR-Cas9 is also a striking example of the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinarity, with Charpentier approaching the topic from a microbiological perspective and Doudna pursuing it based primarily on her deep background in RNA structure and biochemistry. The RNA Society is thrilled to congratulate Professors Charpentier and Doudna for this well-deserved recognition of their magnificent achievement, and for showing the world once again the value of RNA research.