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When will CRISPR get a Nobel Prize?

To most of us, the question for CRISPR is “when” not “will” it get a Nobel Prize. However, there are still questions over “when”, “who” will get the credit, and which Nobel Prize it will even be. The prize for Physiology and Medicine was given Monday for “discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”, then the prize for Physics  for detection of gravitational waves, and now the Chemistry award for“for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”.

Another year and another year of wondering for CRISPR and a potential Nobel prize (let’s assume it doesn’t win for literature or peace later this week). Last year we were already getting stories about how it was missing out – “CRISPR loses Nobel to tiny machines” – and stories about this year’s award still mentioned CRISPR as a “an oft-cited contender during the Nobel award season”.

Does CRISPR get a Nobel in Physiology/Medicine or Chemistry or both (or Neither)?

The fact that this question can be asked makes a strong case for how impactful CRISPR is perceived. A small twitter poll from Hank Greely (@HankGreelyLSJU) had odds about even for medicine and chemistry but with neither as the main prediction. I’ll go ahead and predict that while “neither” was correct for 2017 it won’t be correct forever. 

Predictions have been made on any iteration of Medicine and/or Chemistry. The blog Everyday Scientist predicted Doudna, Charpentier, and Zhang would get it for chemistry this year. Patent Law professor Jacob Sherkow predicted on twitter that a Chemistry prize could go to Siksnys, Doudna, and Charpentier.

STAT suggested that CRISPR could get both categories with Doudna and Charpentier getting Chemistry and Zhang and Church getting medicine. The reasoning here is that Dounda and Charpentier published the first biochemical characterization in test tubes while Zhang and Church published the first use in mammalian cells that could lead to the main medical applications.

I saw fewer serious predictions for medicine in 2017. It would make sense for the Nobel committee to wait until CRISPR has really proved itself in the clinic. There’s a lot of potential and research happening but so far it hasn’t had the time to reach patients. On the other hand, you could make an argument for CRISPR earning its keep in physiology and medicine strictly on the grounds of being such a powerful research tool that’s it been quickly adopted by biomedical research labs around the world. Those research applications of CRISPR made contributions to understanding basic biology even if all of the clinical applications don’t pan out.

A prize in Chemistry could come any year now whole a prize in Medicine is more likely to be a few years off. But who knows! This would be fast for a Nobel Prize and the committee is under no obligation to satisfy our curiosities any time soon.


Who gets a Nobel for CRISPR?

I’ve already referenced the main players, but here’s a very-much-non-definitive list of people rumored to be up for a CRISPR Nobel (in alphabetical order): Emmanuelle Charpentier at Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin (fomerly Umeå University), George Church at Harvard University and Wyss Institute, Jennifer Doudna at University of California, Berkeley, Virginijus Šikšnys at Institute of Biotechnology in Lithuania, and Feng Zhang at Broad Institute and MIT.

There’s been a sense that the Nobel committee might wait for the patent disputes to settle before wading in. Given that a Nobel could be awarded for Medicine, Chemistry, or both also throws a wrench in predictions on which three people could get the award(s). One useful indicator might be how other prizes have gone so far.

So here are how some of other high-profile prizes have added up (along with the prize money):

2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences ($3 million) – Charpentier and Doudna

2015 Massry Prize ( $40,000) – Charpentier, Doudna, and Horvath.

2016 Canada Gairdner International Award ($100,000) – Barrangou, Charpentier, Doudna, Horvath, and Zhang

2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science ($1.34 million cash and $1.67 million grant shared) – Charpentier, Doudna, and Zhang

2016 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize ($500,000) –  Barrangou, Charpentier, Doudna, Horvath, and Šikšnys.

2017 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research ($500,000) – Charpentier, Doudna, Marraffini, Mojica, and Zhang.

If these prizes are actually good indicators (probably a stretch), then you’d probably guess that Doudna and Charpentier are most likely to be included in the three with Zhang as the third. CRISPR pioneers have certainly checked most of the boxes on awards you win in the leadup to a Nobel Prize, but other outstanding awards would be the Lasker Award ($250,000) and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (undisclosed honorarium). There are also other metrics like citations that have been used to create Citation Laureates as predictions. With the rule of three and possibility of different categories I have no idea how this one will actually end up.

So when will CRISPR get a Nobel Prize?


But maybe the real question is why we’re even giving out awards to three people for work that so many contribute to. Ed Yong has a great piece on how ridiculous its place is in establishing the history of science especially given its rules limiting recognition to three living persons. For now, it’s hard to imagine us disregarding awards like the Nobel Prizes but it would be nice to have awards that reflect the contributions of many scientists and the contributions of women and minorities who are so poorly represented in these major awards.

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