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Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Topics Covered: Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life Achievements of Indians in science & technology; indigenization of technology and developing new technology.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry:


2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded for CRISPR/Cas9 ‘Genetic Scissors’.

  • Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna share the prize for developing the CRISPR/Cas9 tool to edit the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with precision.
  • It is possibly the only time in the history of Nobel Prize that two women have been declared the sole winners.

What is CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)?

How it works?

It locates the specific area in the genetic sequence which has been diagnosed to be the cause of the problem, cuts it out, and replaces it with a new and correct sequence that no longer causes the problem.

Details (For better understanding- need not mug up):

  1. An RNA molecule is programmed to locate the particular problematic sequence on the DNA strand, and a special protein called Cas9 (genetic scissor) is used to break and remove the problematic sequence.
  2. A DNA strand, when broken, has a natural tendency to repair itself. But the auto-repair mechanism can lead to the re-growth of a problematic sequence. Scientists intervene during this auto-repair process by supplying the desired sequence of genetic codes, which replaces the original sequence.
  3. It is like cutting a portion of a long zipper somewhere in between, and replacing that portion with a fresh segment.

What is the significance of this technology?

  1. It’s simple: Its simplicity has often been compared to the ‘Cut-Copy-Paste’ mechanism in any word processor (or probably, the equally common ‘Find-Replace’ mechanism).
  2. Potential applications: Its uses can potentially transform human beings, and all other life forms. It can potentially eliminate genetic, and other, diseases, multiply agricultural production, correct deformities, and even open up the more contentious possibilities of producing ‘designer babies’, and bringing cosmetic perfection.
  3. Efficient: Because the entire process is programmable, it has a remarkable efficiency, and has already brought almost miraculous results. Genetic sequences of disease-causing organisms can be altered to make them ineffective.
  4. For Agriculture: Genes of plants can be edited to make them withstand pests, or improve their tolerance to drought or temperature.

Ethical Concerns involved:

2018 Designer Babies: In November 2018, a Chinese researcher claimed that he had altered the genes of a human embryo that eventually resulted in the birth of twin baby girls. This was the first documented case of a ‘designer babies’ being produced using the new gene-editing tools like CRISPR, and this raised ethical concerns.

  • In the case of the Chinese twins, the genes were edited to ensure that they do not get infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This special trait would then be inherited by their subsequent generations as well.

What was the concern then?

The concerns were over the ethics of producing babies with particular genetic traits.

  • The problem in this case, potential infection to HIV virus, already had other alternative solutions and treatments. What made matters worse was that the gene-editing was probably done without any regulatory permission or oversight.
  • Besides, CRISPR technology wasn’t 100 per cent accurate, and it is possible that some other genes could also get altered by mistake.



Prelims Link:

  1. What are genes?
  2. How are genes edited?
  3. What is Crispr technology?
  4. Applications of CRISPR.
  5. What are designer babies?
  6. Difference between DNA and RNA.

Mains Link:

Discuss the ethical concerns associated with CRISPR technology.

Sources: the Hindu.