Professor Jennifer Doudna wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

A second Cal professor wins a Nobel Prize in 2020.

Nobel Prize season always falls in football season and if Nobels had preseason watch lists like the Heisman, then Jennifer Doudna would have been on the top of the lists and has to be one of the least surprising Nobel wins.

Professor Reinhard Genzel won the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday, making this two Nobels in two days for Cal. We have over a hundred Nobel Laureates affiliated with the university, but I believe this is the first year that two faculty members have won the esteemed prize for separate achievements.

And much like we had a physicist on staff to cover yesterday’s Physics win, we happen to have a bioengineer on hand to cover today’s win, which happens to be for genetic engineering.

We first covered Doudna’s discovery and development of the CRISPR six years ago (back when I said I “would have loved” to work with it and have since used it regularly). The system takes inspiration from the bacterial immune system and how it recognizes and attacks invading viruses by targeting the invading DNA—CRISPR allows for the targeting of precise DNA sequences.

As you may recall, DNA is the molecule that encodes all of your hereditary genetic traits (and some uninheritable traits, but maybe we'll discuss that later); DNA is written in a four-letter language. For DNA to be implemented, a modified copy of it is made, called RNA. RNA also has four letters and each one pairs up pretty specifically with its corresponding DNA-letter. This specificity and complementarity is key to the mode of action for CRISPR.

Doudna pairs RNA with an enzyme that cuts up DNA, called Cas9. By combining a nuclease (i.e., an enzyme that cuts DNA) with a specific RNA sequence, Doudna has created a homing missile that will allow for the degradation of targeted DNA sequences.

CRISPR-Cas9 has become a foundational tool for genetic engineering as it allows for the easy and precise targeting to implement genetic changes. This allows us to make genes more active or less active, activate or silence genes, and discover the function of unknown regions of DNA. These are tools that have unknowingly affected your life already with for the production of consumer goods and medicine—and is only going to have an increasing impact as we develop more CRISPR tools.

If you have one literal minute, that’s enough time to watch this primer (teehee, genetic-engineering joke) on CRISPR-Cas9:

I’m not sure how much time Genzel—who also works in Germany and is an emeritus professor at Cal—spends on the Berkeley campus, but I definitely expect Doudna to be taking advantage of those sweet parking privileges on a daily basis.