Top science prize honours women for invention that can help cure many diseases
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry, one of the world’s top awards for scientists, has just been awarded to two women who invented “scissors”.
Now, you might think that we’ve had scissors for a very long time. And you’d be right. Scissors that we use for cutting paper or hair have been around for thousands of years. No one remembers who invented them.
But we’re not talking here about metal scissors. Just 8 years ago, these two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, invented what they call “genetic scissors”.
Can you imagine what those “genetic scissors” might look like?
Well, it’s not obvious, is it? In fact, it’s better to imagine a mixture of chemicals in a test tube.
Emmanuelle and Jennifer figured out a way to snip apart our genes. Those are strands of molecules. And they carry all the information about our bodies that we get from our parents – like the colour of our hair or the shape of our nose.
Why is that useful? Well, our genes can go wrong and make us ill. Do you remember Helen, the girl we met back in January? Her genes were making her blood go funny – she had blood cells shaped like bananas, when they should look like doughnuts.
Helen was cured by doctors who repaired a fault in her genes. She’s still doing really well, by the way! But the treatment she had was really difficult and expensive.
Now, though, the “scissors” invented by Emmanuelle and Jennifer should make it much easier and cheaper for scientists to fix genes like Helen’s.
Thousands of projects around the world are using the new scissors to try and develop all sorts of brilliant stuff. Some of it already works – including a way of using CRISPR to make better tests for coronavirus.
And lots of exciting things could be coming our way – from cures for cancer to crops that grow better food to bringing animals back from extinction.
Girls in the news
There’s another reason why this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry was big news, too. Can you think why?
It’s because Emmanuelle and Jennifer are women. Now, you might think, ‘so what?’. But until not all that long ago, not many women became scientists. Very few women scientists have won a Nobel Prize.
Many people used to think science was something for boys. You might even still hear some people say that. What rubbish!
Jennifer, who’s American, and Emmanuelle, who’s French, said when they won the prize that it was really good to show girls at school that they can do science if they want to – and can dream of achieving great things!
Jennifer grew up on the tropical islands of Hawaii and was fascinated by all the Nature around her. That sparked her interest in studying biology, the science of living things. But she nearly gave it up at university. She wasn’t sure if science was a good job for a woman.
Fortunately, though, a teacher persuaded her to stick with science. We all may have lots to thank her for. And, as Jennifer said when she heard she’d won the Nobel Prize: “Women rock!”
Many people suffer from illnesses caused by the genes they are born with.
Scientists have found ways to fix some genes; CRISPR “scissors” are a tool that gives them a cheaper, easier way to do that.
Reuters and the Financial Times have these accounts of the Prize award, issues around the ethics of altering human genes and the role of women in science. And the Nobel committee’s own commentary is here.
To delve deeper, the Nobel committee have published a fascinating account of the science and the scientists behind CRISPR Cas-9 here.
And finally, here’s a really good 5-minute video explanation of CRISPR Cas9. It may be a little advanced for preteens but have a listen and see if it works for you!