Big Molecule Watch
March 22, 2024

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna

In honor of Women’s History Month, Big Molecule Watch recognizes Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize for a method for genome editing, commonly called CRISPR or “molecular scissors”. By sharing the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Charpentier and Doudna were the first women-only Nobel team in the history of the award and the sixth and seventh women, respectively, to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Emmanuelle Charpentier, born in 1968, is a French microbiologist, geneticist, and biochemist. She received her Ph.D. in the Institut Pasteur Paris (France) in 1995 investigating molecular mechanisms involved in antibiotic resistance. She went on to pursue a scientific career in academic research institutions across the world, including in New York and Memphis (United States), Vienna (Austria), Umeå (Sweden) and Braunschweig (Germany). Charpentier is currently based in Berlin (Germany) where she is the founding and acting director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens whose mission is “to achieve a better understanding of the complexities of pathogens and their interactions with their natural environment by developing innovative approaches.”

Jennifer Doudna, born in 1964, is an American chemist who began her academic career at Harvard Medical School where she received her Ph.D. in 1989 on a system that increased the efficiency of a self-replicating catalytic RNA. Although Doudna was born in Washington DC, her family moved to Hawaii when she was just seven years old so her father, an English literature Ph.D., could begin a teaching position in American literature at the University of Hawaii. Doudna was reportedly fascinated by the environmental beauty of the island – the flora and fauna – inspiring her love of the biological sciences. Later, she remembers being told by her high school guidance counselor that “[w]omen don’t go into science”, but that would not stop her. “When someone tells me I can’t do something and I know that I can, it just makes me more resolved to do it,” said Doudna.

Charpentier and Doudna first met in 2011 at a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they discovered they were both working on the same problem – the mysterious bacterial Cas9 enzyme whose main function is to cut DNA and thereby alter a cell’s genome. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats or CRISPR systems protect organisms such as bacteria from invading plasmids and viruses.  Following years of collaborative research between their laboratories, the pair were able to show that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to produce site-specific cleavage in DNA, thus opening up the possibility of eradicating previously incurable diseases caused by genetics and rare mutations.

On winning the Nobel Prize, Professor Doudna sent out a message to all young women and girls – “Follow your interests and always know that you deserve a seat at the table, no matter what anyone else says . . . I think for many women, there’s a feeling that no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized as it might be if they were a man. And I’d like to see that change, of course, and I think this [2020 Nobel Prize] is a step in the right direction.” Professor Charpentier also has a message for young girls wanting to pursue a life of scientific research, “[m]y wish is that this [Nobel Prize win] will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing.”

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