Thirty years after beginning her training as a postdoctoral scholar in the CU Boulder lab of Nobel laureate Thomas Cech, biochemist Jennifer Doudna on Wednesday won her own Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the co-development of the revolutionary genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9.
“CRISPR genome-editing has revolutionized biomedical science, so hearty congratulations to today’s Nobel Prize winners,” said Cech, a distinguished professor of biochemistry. “I’m especially excited to see Jennifer Doudna’s award because she trained in my research group and has many friends here at CU Boulder.”
Doudna, a professor of biochemistry at University of California Berkeley, shares the award with French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, marking the first time in history that a science Nobel has been won by two women together.
The historic milestone was not lost on Doudna, who was awakened by a reporter at 2:53 a.m. Wednesday, learning she had won. She recalled in a video interview how, as a child, she was told repeatedly that “girls don’t do chemistry, or girls don’t do science.”
“For many women there is a feeling that no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized as it would be if they were a man,” said Doudna. “This refutes that. It makes a strong statement that women can do science, women can do chemistry, and that great science is recognized and honored.”
The power of teamwork
Doudna earned her bachelor’s in biochemistry from Pomona College and her PhD in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard before arriving at CU Boulder in 1991 as the Lucille P. Markey Postdoctoral Scholar in Biomedical Science.
Her mentor, Cech, had just won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry two years earlier for his findings that RNA, or ribonucleic acid, in living cells does not solely carry genetic information (as previously assumed) but can also function as a catalyst—kick-starting reactions inside the cell.
Doudna arrived with a new question: What is the structure of RNA? She used a method of crystallography to work toward an answer during her three years in the Cech Lab. There, she would also meet her husband-to-be Jamie Cate, a CU alum-turned professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley.
“I worked with so many exceptional scientists in Tom’s lab at Boulder,” Doudna told CU Boulder Today. “And of course Tom was and is an inspiring leader and mentor who taught me how to do rigorous biochemistry and to communicate results effectively. Maybe most importantly, Tom taught me about working in teams, which has been essential to my work over the years, including with CRISPR.”
The Nobel Foundation honored Doudna and Charpentier for their discovery, a decade in the making, that a gene-cutting molecule known as Cas9, which is used naturally by bacteria to kill viruses, can be re-engineered as a precise gene-editing tool.
RNA plays a key role in the process, with an RNA molecule guiding the CRISPR-Cas9 system to bind to a specific region in the DNA, where the system acts like a pair of “molecular scissors” to cut the DNA precisely.
Since a landmark 2013 paper showed that the system could edit human DNA, the technology has been put to use in labs around the world, lauded as a remarkably simple gene-editing tool that could lead to new ways to treat disease and engineer crops. It is already the basis of multiple experimental efforts to treat genetic disease, infectious disease and cancer.
The making of a role model
Together, Doudna and Charpentier have already received numerous awards for their invention, sharing the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Genetics, the 2015 Gruber Genetics Prize and the 2016 L’Oreal UNESCO for Women in Science Award.
For some former colleagues and up-and-coming scientists at the Cech Lab, Wednesday’s news that a lab alum (whom they fondly call an “ex-Cechie”) took home the greatest prize in chemistry was a reason to pop champagne and celebrate—safely socially distanced, of course.
“Tom has always been a great role model for promoting women in science, and Jennifer is a great role model for being a woman in science,” said Anne Gooding, who has worked as a research specialist in the Cech Lab for 30 years. “She is just an awesome person, too. It’s a great day for all of us.”
Linnea Jansson-Fritzberg, a postdoctoral researcher studying RNA in the Cech Lab now, notes that she, like Doudna, is also a mother. Doudna has one teenage son. Jansson-Fritzberg has a 2-year-old. For her, at the point in her career where Doudna was when she came to CU, Wednesday’s news was particularly inspiring.
“Often it can be hard, not just as a woman in science but also as a mother in science, to balance everything,” said Jansson-Fritzberg. “It’s incredibly inspiring to see such a great example of someone who has managed to find a balance and achieve what she has.”