From the Galaxy to the Genome: Berkeley Scores Two More Nobel Prizes

Scientists Jennifer Doudna and Reinhard Genzel are awarded for breakthroughs in both the microscopic and the supermassive.
By Boyce Buchanan

Two new Nobel laureates will receive free lifetime parking spots on the UC Berkeley campus this year. And for the first time in Cal’s history, a woman will enjoy this perk. 

Reinhard Genzel and Jennifer Doudna received back-to-back Nobel Prizes on Oct. 6 and 7, respectively—Genzel in physics and Doudna in chemistry.

Genzel shares the physics award for his work on some of the largest and most elusive forms in our galaxy, while Doudna shares the chemistry prize for the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, the “molecular scissors” that can make precise edits in the genome.

As a postdoctoral student at Berkeley in the 1980s, Genzel worked closely with Nobel laureate Charles Townes, building technology to improve telescopes. As a professor at Berkeley, Genzel expanded on his mentor’s work, making it possible to peer into the very center of the galaxy.

Genzel, along with UCLA’s Andrea Ghez, with whom he shares the award, has come to the conclusion that there must be a supermassive black hole in the middle of the Milky Way, controlling the orbits of the multitudes of stars around it. Genzel has spent nearly 30 years refining telescopic technology, improving it more than a thousandfold—what before was obscured by interstellar dust clouds now can be pictured with remarkable clarity. Although the black hole itself is not visible, Genzel and Ghez have been able to sense its gravity by tracking how stars and gas spin around it.

Genzel knew he had hit upon something big when he set his sights on one peculiar star. “[Nature] gave us a star which was on an orbital timescale of 16 years,” Genzel said in a Berkeley press conference. “The orbital timescales of most of these stars are hundreds and thousands of years, so that’s even longer than a long-lived Berkeley professor. … We were lucky.”

Just 24 hours after  Genzel’s prize was announced, Doudna made history by becoming not only the first female laureate on the Berkeley faculty but also, with collaborator and co-recipient Emmanuelle Charpentier, half of the first all-female contingent to share the prize.

“I think that it’s great for, especially, younger women to see this and to see that women’s work can be recognized as much as men’s,” Doudna said in a press conference. “I think for many women there’s a feeling that no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized as it might be if they were a man, and I’d like to see that change, of course, and I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Doudna herself was first inspired to study CRISPR by the work of Berkeley Professor Jillian Banfield. Later, with Charpentier, she figured out that the Cas9 protein in strep bacteria was particularly efficient at slicing DNA—not to mention, programmable. Doudna and Charpentier’s simplification of this cleaving technology to create CRISPR/Cas9 has forever changed chemistry and, in turn, the world. Now, scientists can program these molecular scissors to cut and edit DNA molecules at precise locations.

Using this revolutionary new tool, scientists are quickly developing ways to treat inherited diseases, discovering cancer therapies, and making crops more resistant to climate change. Doudna hopes that in a few years scientists will start using CRISPR to remedy diseases in muscle tissue, like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis and, after that, neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. CRISPR can also be used to investigate phenomena that previously were challenging to study at  the genetic level, such as the origins of bipedalism and the way patterns form on butterfly wings.

“I’m over the moon,” said Doudna, who co-founded the Innovative Genomics Institute at Berkeley to promote “affordability, accessibility, and sustainability” in genome editing. “I’m in shock, and I couldn’t be happier to be representing UC Berkeley.” 

From the Winter 2020 issue of California.
Image source: Genzel: Matthias Balk/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP images; Doudna: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
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