A week ago, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Professor at Umeå University and Helmholtz Center for Infection Research, was honored with a very prestigious award in life sciences: The BREAKTHROUGH PRIZE. The prize was funded by renowned entrepreneurs of the Silicon Valley to highlight big achievements of scientists in the domains of mathematics, physics and life sciences to the public and the younger generation. The prize honors breakthroughs in fundamental science, which are the basis for more discoveries and improvements for human kind.
"Most scientists are introverts, so lets give these folks what introverts crave one more big round of public attention", Seth MacFarlane introduced a long applause to honor the fourteen laureates on stage at the Breakthrough Prize show in San Francisco. One of them: Emmanuelle Charpentier.
It is very rare that scientists are celebrated, but Hollywood and Silicon Valley showed last Sunday night how famous entrepreneurs and stars celebrate the world's foremost scientists. For the first time also a scientist from a Swedish University, Umeå University Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, was honored. She received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences 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".
The awarded breakthrough contribution to life science is the description of an enzyme, the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which utilizes a very exquisite and targeted mechanism to cleave DNA and insert new DNA parts. It is a basic mechanism used by bacteria to defend themselves against virus attacks. By exploiting this mechanism, a collaboration with the group of Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley led to the development of an easy-to-use, efficient and versatile tool for genome engineering applied to edit and modify the codon usage of genes in any cells and organisms.The finding has transformative and wide-ranging implications in biology and medicine.
"My team identified the key elements needed to be essential for Cas9 cleavage of DNA. We knew that to cleave DNA, three components were required - the protein enzyme endonuclease Cas9 and two RNA molecules, the guide CRISPR RNA, and a so-called tracRNA. The tracRNA needs to anneal to the guide CRISPR RNA so that this newly formed RNA duplex can interact with Cas9. Based on classical Watson-Crick nucleotide pairing the guide CRISPR RNA directs the dual RNA Cas9 complex to a complementary gene sequence, which will be cut consequently", professor Charpentier explains the breakthrough.
The CRISPR-Cas9 breakthrough emerged only within a couple of months into a very important precise and cost effective tool for genome editing that has been adopted by the scientific community and is under development for possibilities of fighting diseases by gene therapy.
Charpentier deciphered the CRISPR-Cas9 system during her time as a group leader at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden – MIMS in Umeå, the Swedish node of the Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine. She was very excited to move to Umeå University in the far up North of Sweden, a campus internationally recognized in the fields of molecular biology, microbiology and infection biology. Emmanuelle Charpentier is a type of scientists that like taking risks in science and start new research projects or follow new roads. "The freedom to develop new projects and ideas based on own motivations and intuitions is essential for a researcher. The MIMS affiliated to EMBL and the Department of Molecular Biology at Umeå University has offered me the right environment to pursue my research goals". She wants to encourage young students and researchers in this direction. Therefore it is not surprising that she also wants to spend a part of the Breakthrough Prize money on the scientific education of young people.
"I would like to contribute to promoting scientific education with the aim to find early motivated students of primary or high schools and encourage them to pursue a scientific career", Charpentier commented.
"Scientific education should not only be restricted to mathematics, biology, physics and chemistry. I am interested in developing new concepts that combine science and other creative disciplines such as artistic disciplines." The news is still fresh but Emmanuelle Charpentier's current plans are either to invest in existing foundations that meet her own interests or create a new fund for innovative scientific education already in an earlier stadium than University.
"Hopefully I can contribute to interest more young high school students to study life sciences and become researchers".
But by now, she is back in her laboratory focusing on new exciting research together with her team. "Science in our days is a very social and collaborative activity. My team is composed of enthusiastic junior scientists coming from all over the world eager to make the difference with their research projects. The CRISPR-Cas9 breakthrough would not have been possible without their dedication, hard work and provided sheer fun". She first wants to celebrate the Breakthrough prize with her team. And both her team and colleagues in Sweden and in Germany will surely take the chance to watch the broadcasting of the Breakthrough ceremony on BBC World News.
Follow the broadcast of the Breakthrough Prize Celebration at NASA Hangar One in Silicon Valley:
on Saturday 22 November in BBC WORLD NEWS. At 9:10 GMT, 10:10 in Sweden.
The programme is repeated on Saturday at 20:10 GMT (21:10 in Sweden) and Sunday 2:10 (3:10 in Sweden)
For more information, please contact:
Emmanuelle Charpentier, professor
The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden, MIMS, Umeå University
and Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig, Germany
Picture: Hallbauer+Fioretti Fotografie, Germany