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HHMI investigator Jennifer Doudna is among six scientists honored for transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.
Investigator, University of California, Berkeley
HHMI investigator Jennifer Doudna is among six scientists honored for transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation announcedexternal link, opens in a new tab that Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley is among six scientists awarded the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, which honor transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.

The Breakthrough Prizes recognize pioneering work in physics and genetics, cosmology, and neurology and mathematics. Each prize carries an award of $3 million. Live streamingexternal link, opens in a new tab of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Symposium at Stanford University will begin at 9 a.m., PST, today.

“The world faces many fundamental challenges today, and there are many amazing scientists, researchers and engineers helping us solve them,” said Mark Zuckerberg, a founder of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and Facebook. “This year’s Breakthrough Prize winners have made discoveries that will help cure disease and move the world forward. They deserve to be recognized as heroes.”

Doudna was honored with Emmanuelle Charpentier external link, opens in a new tabof the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and Umeå University 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.

In the genetic world, DNA often takes the spotlight while RNA works behind the scenes to carry out the complicated operations within a cell, like retrieving information from DNA and using it to build proteins. Increasingly, however, RNA is attracting more attention from scientists because it has proven far more versatile than DNA, despite their chemical similarities.

Doudna’s research focuses on determining the molecular structures of RNA molecules as a basis for understanding their biological function. Her work lays the foundation for understanding the evolution of RNAs and their relationship to the molecules that played a role in early forms of life.

Many bacteria have a CRISPR-based immune system that is used to recognize and destroy the genomes of invading viruses and plasmids. In 2012, the labs of Doudna and Charpentier showed that the protein Cas9 is a DNA-cutting enzyme guided by RNA. Cas9 relies on two short RNA guide sequences to find foreign DNA, and then cleaves the target sequences, thereby silencing the invaders' genes.

The process is specific and efficient enough to fend off viral infections in bacteria, and those same qualities have made the CRISPR system a powerful research tool. Doudna’s team adapted the system so that it can be guided by a single short RNA molecule. Researchers who use the system for genome editing can customize that RNA so that it directs Cas9 to cleave at a desired location in the genome.

In addition to Doudna and Charpentier, the winners of the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are:

  • Alim Louis Benabid, Joseph Fourier University, for the discovery and pioneering work on the development of high-frequency deep brain stimulation (DBS), which has revolutionized the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.
  • C. David Allis, The Rockefeller University, for the discovery of covalent modifications of histone proteins and their critical roles in the regulation of gene expression and chromatin organization, advancing the understanding of diseases ranging from birth defects to cancer.
  • Victor Ambros, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Gary Ruvkun, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, for the discovery of a new world of genetic regulation by microRNAs, a class of tiny RNA molecules that inhibit translation or destabilize complementary mRNA targets. Each received a $3 million award.

Prize recipients are invited to serve on the selection committee to select recipients of future prizes. Last year, HHMI investigators Richard P. Lifton of Yale University was awarded a Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences. The selection committee for the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences included: James P. Allison, Cornelia I. Bargmann, David Botstein, Lewis C. Cantley, Hans Clevers, Titia de Lange, Mahlon R. DeLong, Napoleone Ferrara, Michael N. Hall, Eric S. Lander, Robert Langer, Richard P. Lifton, Charles L. Sawyers, Alexander Varshavsky, Bert Vogelstein, Robert A. Weinberg and Shinya Yamanaka.

Founded in 2013, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to advancing breakthrough research, celebrating scientists and generating excitement about the pursuit of science as a career. The Foundation was founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, and Yuri and Julia Milner.