Skip to main content

MADAM’ Moment in Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the Year 2020

 MADAM’ Moment in Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the Year 2020

The Nobel Prize in chemistry, 2020 was announced yesterday and it has been  awarded to ‘Madam’ scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering work on the development of CRISPR tool for gene editing, a discovery that holds out the possibility of curing genetic diseases. This years Nobel Prize in Chemistry is an extraordinary moment for the global scientific community since it is a rarity that Nobel Prizes are awarded exclusively for lady scientists. This historic ‘Madam’ moment is significant considering the fact that the Nobel club is majorly populated by gentlemen scientists, particularly in the field of sciences and that there  are only seven scientists including Marie Curie - winner of two Nobel Prizes, and her daughter Irene Juliet Curie and this years winners  Charpentier and Doudna, among the 182 scientists who have received this coveted Nobel prize in Chemistry till date. 

The word ‘Madam’ used in the caption of my article in a way is quite significant for this years Chemistry Nobel prize. It reveals the very nature of the works for which the two Madam scientists - Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and will share the prize money of 10 Million Sweedish Krones. They have been awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize Prize in Chemistry for this year, in recognition of their scientific research, which has led to the development of a technological tool that can be used for editing the very book of life - Genome editing. Their discovery, known as CRISPR-Cas9, helps researchers to make specific and precise modifications to the DNA contained in living cells. The term CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeat. Palindromic represents a word or a sentence, which reads the same both backward and forward. Take for example the word ‘Madam’, used specifically in the title of the article. It reads the same when read both ways ; forward and backwards. The two Nobel ‘Madam’ laureates have harvested the fundamental scientific understanding  of this naturally occurring palindromic biochemistry phenomenon -  a region of DNA in which the sequence of nucleotides is identical with an inverted sequence in the complementary strand (GAATTC is a palindrome of CTTAAG), to develop their CRISPR - CAS9 technique. The CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene-editing tool that can be used to remove, add, or change a portion of the DNA sequence of a target gene of interest. It is based on a quintessential “cut-and-paste” mechanism, which we routinely use in our document editing, in which the enzyme Cas9 is guided toward a specific DNA region with the help of a small guide RNA molecule. This path breaking technique and use of the guide RNA has opened up a revolutionary way forward for harvesting immeasurable applications of this technology, which are destined to present themselves in the form of therapeutic medicines for genetic disorders like the sickle cells, haemophilia etc. 

According to a recent report (5th October 2020), Genome Editing Market by Application (Cell Line Engineering, Animal Genetic Engineering, Plant Genetic Engineering), the market valuation of this CRISPR - CAS 9 and other similar technologies, is estimated to be valued at around 10 Billion US Dollars by 2026. It is also estimated that there will be an increase in government support for the biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the better treatment of genetic diseases using this technique. Industry captains are certain that this technology will lead to a paradigm shift in investments in the field of genetic engineering and that its impact will be felt across biomedical research, clinical medicine, agriculture and wider society, besides its potential to treat or prevent human diseases particularly the genetic disorders. The current Covid 19 pandemic will accentuate the governmental support and investment in such technologies. India in a way is a leading global manufacturer of vaccines. It is one of the major countries which the global community is looking towards for mass manufacturing of vaccines and such other pharmaceutical products that can reach a vast population. Therefore it is earnestly hoped that the benefits of this technology, which have already began to play out in the international market, will accrue to the Indian pharmaceutical companies and to the global human society.

However, it must also be noted with circumspection that this technology also brings with it major ethical concerns and critics have cried foul and are afraid that this technology may prove to be a Frankenstein monster that may lead to creating gene edited babies and such other unethical practices and end up interfering into the very act of ‘God’. It is worth recalling the claim made by the Chinese scientist - He Jiankui, of illegally altering the genetic make up of twin girls which was reported in late 2018. This information shook the world and called the attention of the global community on the ethical concerns that such technology comes with. Fortunately, He Jiankui was found guilty of illegal practices in trying to alter the genetic makeup of twin girls and was jailed for three years. The alertness of the global community in combating such unethical and illegal practices give hope that this technology will not go unchecked nor will it be abused. Scientific community and human society is now aware that the Chinese scientist by engineering mutations into human embryos, which he used to produce babies, was capriciously nosediving into an era in which science could rewrite the gene pool of future generations by altering the human germ line. The Chinese scientist had also flouted established norms for safety and human protections along the way. Although there was no definitive evidence that the Chinese scientist actually succeeded in modifying the girls’ genes — or those of a third child expected to be born later, the experiments had attracted so much attention that the incident has created an alarm for the human society and may very well alter scientific research for years to come. This incident has also divided the society in their opinion on scientific research in the field of genome editing.

But then the ethical concerns of scientific research have not been new to the human society. Ever since the Nobel prize winning discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, by James Watson and Francis Crick, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, which was followed the successful sequencing of the entire Human Genome fifty years later in 2003, there have been debates in favour and against such scientific research and ethical concerns have been voiced by the society. Interestingly, it is in anticipation of such ethical concerns that the Human Genome Project (HGP) has specifically had earmarked a portion of the HGP budget (3%) which was meant to address the ELSI - Ethical, Legal and Social Issues, associated with the sequencing of the human genome. Hopefully there will be requisite funding, legislation and laws which will be framed by countries to ally the fears that the CRISPR technology may create. 

While speaking of the benefits and concerns debate, which crops up during such scientific research, particularly in the context of this years Nobel winning works in Chemistry - the CRISPR technology tools, I am reminded of two quotes from history one relatively recent and the other from the eighteenth century, which reveal the two sides of the divide that are natural to such debates, which span centuries. Jonathan Swift in his famed ‘The King of Brobdingnag, “Gulliver’s Travels”, wrote in 1727 ; ‘Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before would more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together”.  Perhaps his statement can be appreciated in the Indian context where the benefits of scientific research were applied in agricultural practices by scientists like Normal Borlaug and M S Swaminathan, who heralded the green revolution in India and helped us in combating hunger and famine quite effectively. However, there is another side to any scientific research and that relates to the concerns that come with some of the scientific research, which can be seen from the statement of Prince Charles, made in 1998. He said “ I believe that we have now reached a moral and ethical watershed beyond which we venture in to realms that belong to God, and to God alone. Apart from certain medical applications, what actual right do we have to experiment, Frankenstein like, with the very stuff of life?” 

As exemplified in the above quotes, throughout history, there have been those who have embraced change, which emanates from scientific research and those who have expressed concern and have preferred to clung to old ways, feeling known risks are better than unknown benefits. So we should not be surprised that history may be  replayed as we come to grips with this new technology, which is a result of the wonderful research work of the two Nobel Madams who have been awarded this years Chemistry Nobel Prize. 

May Science triumph and may humanity triumph as well.


  1. Very Informative and useful blog for Teaching community


Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai : The Father of Indian Space Program

  Tribute to     Dr. Vikram Sarabhai : The Father of Indian Space Program The year long birth centenary celebrations of the father of the Indian Space programme and the architect of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) - Dr Vikram Sarabhai (12th Aug, 2019 - 12th August, 2020), which had kick started with the inaugural function of this event last year on 12th August, 2019 - the birth centenary year of Dr Sarabhai - at Gujarat University Convention Centre, Ahmadabad, comes to a close today, without much fanfare owing to the Covid pandemic. The opening program of the birth centenary celebration of Dr Sarabhai - organised    on 12th August,2019 - was tele addressed by the Honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, to an August gathering of scientists from DAE, ISRO, PRL and students and heads of institution. During the year long Sarabhai centenary celebrations, several programmes were organised across the country and one of the significant program - one day Vikram Sarabhai Centena

Sainik School Bijapur: Nostalgic memories of yesteryears.

Sainik School Bijapur: Nostalgic memories of yesteryears . I am blessed to be among those very few privileged alumni from one of the prestigious chain of residential schools in the country - the Sainik School Bijapur. Very recently I joined the    ‘All India Sainik School Alumni Association (AISSAA)’ group, which has motivated me to write this post to introduce the Sainik Schools in general and the Sainik School Bijapur (SSBJ) in particular with special emphasis to our batch (1970-77) to other members of the AISSAA and to all others, through this blogpost. The Sainik School scheme was launched by the government of India (Ministry of Defence) in 1961 to bridge the gap that existed in the rank of the military officers from    certain sections of the Indian society.    The scheme was conceived by V. K. Krishna Menon, the then Defence Minister of India, with an aim to rectify the imbalance caused by religion, class, and creed among the Officer

Eulogy for our School Buddy and a Jewel of our batch, Admiral Srikant, AVSM, DG, Project Sea Bird (Karwar Naval Base)

Eulogy for our School Buddy and a Jewel of our batch, Admiral Srikant, AVSM, DG, Project Sea Bird (Karwar Naval Base) Just three months ago, 16 th September, 2020, during the foundation day of the Sainik School Bijapur (SSBJ), Vice Admiral Srikant was invited by the Principal and management of SSBJ to be the Chief Guest and to deliver the 57 th Foundation Day lecture at our school, which he did so admirably. Srikant in his outstandingly motivational address to the young Ajeets, highlighted the significance of education in one’s life and he emphasised the role that Sainik School Plays in shaping the lives of the students and that he is one of those lucky ones to have been an alumnus of this great school. His speech was full of motivation to the young cadets who listened to him with rapt attention and looked up to him as their role model. It was such a great honour and privilege for all of us - the Ajeets of 1970 to 1977 batch, that our very own buddy classmate – Srikant, was invited t

Kargil Vijay Diwas : Nation owes its debt to Colonel MB Ravindranath - our fellow Ajeet-, the Indian Army (all forces included) and specially to those who made the supreme sacrifice in service of our nation.

Two Decades of Kargil Vijay Diwas : Salutations to the Battle heroes who made supreme sacrifice (My blog posted on 26th July 2019) This day, 26th July, 20 years ago, will ever be etched in the annals of the bravery of the Indian Armed forces, and befittingly the entire nation joined in  commemorating this momentous occasion in the form of विजय दिवस, which, this year,  was celebrated all across the nation with the theme, ‘Remember, Rejoice and Renew’. The valour of our armed forces in this treacherous war, thrust on us by the enemy in deceit, can best be exemplified by its comparison with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who, in his famous poem, portrays  the bravery of the 600 men of the Light Brigade, who marched into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell, without asking the reason why, but firmly believing in the orders to do and die in service of the nation. True to the traditions of the Indian Armed forces, more than 500 (527 to be

Lt. Col. Ajit Bhandarkar (25 RR) : श्रधांजलि to the brave शौर्य चक्र Soldier.

Shaurya Chakra, Lt Col. Ajit Bhandarkar -  श्रधांजलि to the martyrdom of the brave Soldier. AJIT BHANDARKAR’s Wife and two Sons (both in defence services) during their visit to the Sainik School Bijapur for the opening of the Ajit Dwar. This day last year - 30th October, 2019, was the twentieth year of the martyrdom of our dear friend Lt Col. Ajit Bhandarkar, who made the supreme sacrifice in service of his motherland on this very date in 1999. Colonel Anirudh Gudi, another classmate of ours (1970-77), from the batch of Ajit Bhandarkar, at the Sainik School Bijapur, posted his tribute to our dear friend Ajit in our Ajeet 77 group with some very nostalgic and memorable photographs of our dear friend Ajit and his family. I have therefore updated the tribute which I had posted last year in my blog. Here it is for all my dear friends who have been gracious to follow my blog. Lt. Col. Ajit Bhandarkar (25 RR) : श्रधांजलि to the brave शौर्य चक्र Soldier (My Blog post posted

In remembrance of Prof R Balasubramaniam (Bala) : A Decennial Tribute to a beloved friend.

In remembrance of Prof R Balasubramaniam (Bala) : A Decennial Tribute to a beloved friend. A decade ago, on Wednesday, the 9th of December 2009, in the wee hours (2.20 AM) of that fateful early morning, the uncertainty of life played out its role from the hands of the sutradhar of human destiny, resulting in the almighty taking into her fold - the heavenly abode - one of the finest of scientists, academician and an extraordinary archeo-metallurgist - Professor R Balasubramaniam. Around 9 AM in the morning of that fateful day - 9th December, 2009 - I received a forwarded email from Prof Sharada Srinivasan, which she had received from Prof Bikramjit Basu, then Associate Professor and P K Kelkar Research Fellow at the Metallurgical department at IIT Kanpur, confirming the inevitable passing away of our beloved Bala, who had been ailing for quite some time suffering from jaw cancer. He was constantly suffering from breathlessness for more than a

COVID 19, Hand Washing & Ignaz Semmelweis

COVID 19, Hand Washing & Ignaz Semmelweis : Homage to the Father of Hand Hygiene and Saviour of Lives. Image Credits : Wiki Commons Google is now an all pervasive lexicon, which has entered into the hearts and minds of most Indians and the Google home page is as strongly etched in our minds as the current COVID 19 pandemic. Therefore yesterday’s Google Doodle - which is continuing even today- an image that appears on the Google home page, conveyed a timely message for all of us -    ‘ Stay Home, Save Lives’. This message emphasises the need for us to be resilient for unitedly combating the global COVID pandemic by staying in our home to arrest the Covid spread. Hopefully it will help us in re-emphasising the need for all of us to strictly follow the guidelines of the government, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, World Health Organisation (WHO) and such other credible organisations in combating the Covid menace by staying in our respective homes

Discovery of the Hepatitis C wins the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

  Discovery of the Hepatitis C wins the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Images : courtesy Nobel Foundation and Wiki Commons. Liver cirrhosis - a dreaded medical jargon, which affects the liver - primarily due to the Hepatitis virus, is something that has caused immense sorrow for me and other students and alumni of Sainik School Bijapur - the Ajeets. Two of my very close friends - Tipusultan and Gurupad Hegadi, fellow Ajeets, have succumbed to this dreaded disease - Liver Cirrhosis, within a year of each other on July 13, 2019 and 17th August, 2020, respectively. One of the major causes for liver cirrhosis is a virus - the Hepatitis virus, which comes in three major variants A, B and C. World Health Organisation - WHO, estimates  that worldwide some 290 million people are living with the Hepatitis virus including  the Hepatitis C virus, which alone infects more than 70 million people, and kills 400,000 people annually.  It is therefore no wonder that the Nobel Assembly at

Maski Rock Edict : Missing link that Conclusively Connects Asoka with Devanam Piyadasi.

  Maski Rock Edict : Missing link that Conclusively Connects Asoka with Devanam Piyadasi. Maski, a nondescript small town in Karnataka state, is located some 90 kms from my home town Raichur - the district headquarters of Maski. Maski is home to a historically significant rock edict ( Minor Rock Edict), which conclusively connects the Mauryan King Asoka with Devanam Piyadasi - one of the epithets attached to the emperor Asoka. The Maski Rock Edict and other Asoka rock and pillar edicts, which are spread across the Indian sub continent, constitute a unique branch of Indian epigraphical literature which have a special significance in the history of India,    particularly the Mauryan Empire. They offer earliest evidential records in the Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts in several forms of Prakrit language and shed light on the great Emperor - Asoka, and his administration and religious policy and so also his love and compassion.   Asoka (also spelled as Ashoka) is one of the world’s most rem