Skip to Content

The Nobel Prize in chemistry has gone to the two women who pioneered CRISPR gene editing

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna share the award, although there may be some controversy about who missed out.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have shared this year's award
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have shared this year's awardNobel

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 was awarded today to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna “for the development of a method for genome editing” called CRISPR. 

Genetic scissors: The Nobel Committee cited Doudna and Charpentier for an “epoch-making” experiment in 2012 in which they determined how to use CRISPR to cut DNA at sites of their choosing. Since then, the “genetic scissors” technology has revolutionized lab research and has already been tested on patients as a way to cure blindness and sickle-cell disease. It has also been used to create gene-altered corn, pigs, and dogs—and, more controversially, humans. The technique is so powerful because it’s simple to use, involving just one specialized DNA-cutting protein and a “guide” molecule that can direct it anywhere in a genome. 

The split: The prize is the first Nobel to be shared only by two women. But after their groundbreaking collaboration, the team quickly split up including over differences about commercializing the technology. Charpentier, based in Europe, and Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, each started separate biotech companies. 

Controversial pick: Nobels can go to up to three people, so the committee’s choice to leave the third slot unfilled is likely to generate debate. Those potentially left out of the honor include Virginijus Šikšnys, a Lithuanian biochemist at the University of Vilnius who made similar discoveries. Also snubbed is Feng Zhang of MIT, who was among the first to show CRISPR editing in human cells and who has so far prevailed in a costly dispute with Charpentier and Doudna over CRISPR patent rights.  

Warning the public: CRISPR gene editing has been called the “biggest biotech discovery of the century,” and since its development Doudna has taken on the most public role, including efforts to warn society about controversial uses that seem all but unstoppable. In 2018, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, used it on IVF embryos to create the first genome-edited human beings. His work was condemned, and he’s now serving a prison sentence. 

Deep Dive


These scientists used CRISPR to put an alligator gene into catfish

The resulting fish appear to be more resistant to disease and could improve commercial production—should they ever be approved.

Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses?

Last year, Verve Therapeutics started the first human trial of a CRISPR treatment that could benefit most people—a signal that gene editing may be ready to go mainstream.

CRISPR for high cholesterol: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

New forms of the gene-editing tool could enable treatments for common diseases.

An ALS patient set a record for communicating via a brain implant: 62 words per minute

Brain interfaces could let paralyzed people speak at almost normal speeds.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.