Vilnius Awards Scholarship to Honour Biotechnological Pioneer Virginijus Šikšnys for Discoveries in CRISPR-Cas9 Technology

December 9, 2020. On the eve of the Nobel Prize awards ceremony Vilnius will celebrate it by honouring one of the most prominent Lithuanian pioneers in life sciences - Prof Virginijus Šikšnys - whose contributions led to important discoveries in the Nobel Prize-worthy CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Vilnius is funding a scholarship in the name of the scientist and has commissioned a sculpture for the achievements made in the life sciences field.

Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys | Photo by E. Kurauskas

Because of the input contributed immensely by Prof V. Šikšnys to the discoveries in CRISPR-Cas9 technology - a field that will receive the Nobel Prize this year, Vilnius is funding a scholarship for the most gifted students in the life sciences field, which will be named after the professor. Since Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre has been recognized as one of the global leaders in life sciences, the aim of the scholarship is to inspire local and foreign talents with the example of Prof V. Šikšnys, and to motivate them to continue with their studies and work in Vilnius. The scholarship of 10 000 EUR each year will be financed for 5 years with the possibility of the extension.

"The achievements of Prof Virginijus Šikšnys are important not only to academia but to our entire society. They direct global attention to Vilnius as one of the leading cities in life sciences. The scholarship gives the opportunity for young scientists to work alongside globally-recognised scientists such as Prof Šikšnys and for Vilnius University to be discovered by gifted people from all over the world," Remigijus Šimašius, Mayor of Vilnius says.

Photo by Saulius Žiūra

A Lithuanian-native Prof V. Šikšnys is one of the most important pioneers in CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which enables geneticists and medical researchers to alter, remove, and add sections of the DNA sequence in this way editing parts of the genome. The discoveries in this field were awarded the Nobel Prize this year, and the professor contributed greatly to this global award by being the first to show that the CRISPR-Cas9 system could be transferred from one bacterium to another.

The professor’s achievements have not been left out. He received the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize for his remarkable input in CRISPR bacterial defence system discoveries in 2016. The scientist was also awarded the Novozymes Prize in biotechnology in 2017, and the Kavli Prize in nanoscience together with this year’s Nobel Prize winners in 2018. The scientific community holds the professor in the highest regard as one of the most important scientists to contribute significantly in the progress towards the development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology.

Šikšnys says he is pleasantly surprised by the honours: "I see this as an outstanding initiative to attract more talented people to biotechnologies and support the scientists in the field. At the same time, I could not be more proud that my life’s work might inspire other young scientists to aim high in their paths towards new discoveries."

At the beginning of next year, Vilnius will also be unveiling a sculpture to honour the CRISPR-Cas9 tool also called "genetic scissors" near Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre. It has been commissioned in order to spread the understanding of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology more publicly and show that Vilnius city and Vilnius University are proud to house scientists whose work has led to globally recognised achievements and made the Nobel Prize-worthy ideas come to life. The sculpture is created by the artist Eglė Žvirblytė who has a close connection to biotechnologies herself.

Visualization of the DNA spiral sculpture

"Both of my parents are well-known biotechnologists in Lithuania. Even though I decided to take on another path, I want Vilnius to have this sculpture which symbolizes both my roots and the importance of having scientists that make our entire nation proud," says the artist.

The capital of Lithuania has been continuously strong and famous for the achievements made by its scientists in life sciences and biotechnologies. This year Vilnius University students won the Undergraduate Grand Prize at the iGEM 2020 competition. The Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team has been participating in the competition for six year and this year outmatched more than 250 of the world’s strongest teams by presenting FlavoFlow project dedicated for exogenous fish infections. Vilnius has also been chosen by many global biotechnology companies, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, which provides reagents that may be used for the development of COVID-19 vaccine.

A special video was created about the achievements of Prof Šikšnys and is available here.