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Biochemist Jennifer Doudna (left) and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2016. Photo: Alexander Heinl/picture alliance via Getty Images

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work developing the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Why it matters: Gene editing could transform biology and medicine with its wide-ranging applications for understanding and treating disease, optimizing crops and eradicating pests. But its potential use in treating human diseases by changing genes that can be inherited raises major ethical questions that will challenge scientists for decades.

The backdrop: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, are sequences of genetic code that bacteria evolved to find and target invading viruses.

  • In 2012, Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Charpentier, a microbiologist now at the Max Plank Institute for Infection Biology, reported CRISPR can be programmed to lead enzymes to genetic sequences that the enzyme then precisely snips or edits, turning a gene on or off or changing its function.

Between the lines: Doudna and Charpentier have been considered top candidates for the prize for several years, but there's an ongoing fight over patents for CRISPR and its use.

  • Berkeley and MIT have battled for years over the patent rights to CRISPR, though it's unclear how the Nobel will affect the legal fight.
  • Other researchers, including Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute at MIT, have made key contributions to gene editing as well but were not recognized by the Nobel committee.

What to watch: Earlier this week, Doudna launched Scribe Therapeutics, a startup that aims to use engineered CRISPR molecules and delivery technologies to edit cells while they are in the body. (Other approaches remove cells from the body, edit them and reintroduce them.)

  • Scribe, which is collaborating with Biogen, is looking to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) first, per FierceBiotech.

Of note: "The award smashed records and made scientific history as the only science Nobel ever won by two women," Sharon Begley writes in STAT.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Oct 9, 2020 - World

World Food Program wins Nobel Peace Prize

David Beasley in Cuba. Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize in a pointed assertion that multilateralism is saving lives despite the nationalism espoused by leaders like President Trump.

What they're saying: "Multilateralism seems to have a lack of respect these days,” said Nobel Committee director Berit Reiss-Andersen. "The need for international solidarity and multilateral co-operation is more conspicuous than ever."

Updated 4 hours ago - World

U.S. airstrike kills senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria, DOD says

A displacement camp near the village of Qah in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Photo: Ahmad Al-Atrash/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. airstrike in northwest Syria on Friday killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid al-Matar, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

Why it matters: Syria serves as a "safe haven" for the extremist group to plan external operations, according to U.S. Army Maj. John Rigsbee.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas convicted of campaign finance crimes

Lev Parnas, a former associate of then-President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Florida businessman Lev Parnas was convicted Friday on charges of conspiracy to make foreign contributions to political campaigns, according to multiple outlets.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said Parnas, then an associate of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, funneled over $150,000 from a Russian businessman into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to land licenses in the U.S.'s legal cannabis industry.