Biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a professor at UC Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is co-winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the development of a method for genome editing.”
She shares the Nobel Prize with co-discoverer Emmanuelle Charpentier, who currently serves as the scientific and managing director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Together, they form the first all-woman research team to win a Nobel Prize.
“On behalf of the Berkeley Lab community, I extend my warmest congratulations to Jennifer Doudna for receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry. She is an exceptional scientist, and her groundbreaking research will inspire the next generation of scientists to take on challenges that both push the boundaries of knowledge and benefit humanity,” said Berkeley Lab Director Mike Witherell.
The discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic engineering technology has radically changed genomics research. This genome-editing technology enables scientists to change or remove genes quickly, with a precision only dreamed of just a few years ago. Labs worldwide have redirected the course of their research to incorporate this new tool, with huge implications across biology, agriculture, and medicine.
Doudna is a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division; a professor of molecular and cell biology, and chemistry, at UC Berkeley; and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Foundational Berkeley Lab research
Doudna’s interest in gene editing can be traced to her research as a doctoral student at Harvard Medical School, when she designed a self-replicating RNA. As a research fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she began crystallizing RNA so that she could study its structure and understand the physical basis of catalysis. While on the faculty at Yale University, she continued her study of catalytic RNA. When she joined UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab in 2002, she pursued her interest in how RNA molecules decide what genetic information gets disseminated in cells.
In 2008, Doudna’s nascent research on CRISPR RNA strands and the Cas1 protein was funded by a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program through her Berkeley Lab affiliation. Established by Congress in 1991, the LDRD program has helped the U.S. remain at the forefront of technology through the innovative, multidisciplinary research of the DOE national labs.
Building upon findings from this early work and other investigations, in 2012, Doudna and Charpentier’s research team detailed the underlying mechanisms of the CRISPR-Cas9 system – a component of the bacterial immune system that defends against invading viruses – and explained how it can be programmed to cut DNA at a target sequence. This seminal work was published in the journal Science.
Today, Doudna and Charpentier’s Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR-Cas9 technology is the basis of many promising medical technologies, including tools to diagnose and treat infections such as COVID-19, and has many applications for the development of improved crops, biofuels, and bioproducts.
With Doudna’s award, Berkeley Lab scientists and research have now been recognized with 14 Nobel Prizes.
For more details about the Nobel Prize, see the UC Berkeley news release.