Jennifer A. Doudna
University of California, Berkeley, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
For harnessing an ancient mechanism of bacterial immunity into a powerful and general technology for editing genomes, with wide-ranging implications across biology and medicine.
Jennifer Doudna, in collaboration with Emmanuelle Charpentier, discovered a defense mechanism used by bacteria against invading pathogens such as viruses. The bacteria use a molecular system called CRISPR-Cas9 to extract some of the virus’s DNA, which the bacteria (or their descendants) can later use to identify future invaders from the same species. Doudna and Charpentier re-engineered CRISPR-Cas9 into “molecular scissors” that can home in on a specific section of DNA, cut it out, and replace it with new DNA. This technique holds spectacular promise for new therapies to treat conditions from cancer to inherited genetic disorders to aging.
I am thrilled to receive the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. During my childhood in rural Hawaii, I could never have envisioned this moment! But I loved imagining the molecules that enable cells to function. When I realized that chemical principles could be applied to biology, I knew I had found my life’s calling. I am grateful to many mentors, including Jack Szostak, Tom Cech, Sharon Panasenko, Fred Grieman, Tom Steitz, Joan Steitz, Robert Tjian, and Michael Botchan for their unwavering support and guidance. I’d also like to thank my colleagues and the many wonderful students and postdoctoral associates I have worked with. Special thanks go to Emmanuelle Charpentier, my collaborator on the research and discoveries honored by the Breakthrough Prize to both of us this year. I thank my sisters, Ellen and Sarah, my parents, my husband, Jamie Cate, and my son Andrew. Jamie, I thank you in particular for countless discussions about experiments and data that have inspired and motivated me in the lab and beyond. I hope this prize encourages all of us to support science and the technologies that come from it, for the improvement of human health and the world we live in.