Using a bacteria’s defense system to reinvent genetic research


Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier in the lab
© Thierry Bouët for L'Oréal Foundation
27 April 2016

For today’s scientists, crossing borders between countries and disciplines is instrumental to opening doors to new questions and new answers,” explains Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier. Her collaboration with Professor Jennifer Doudna has led to the development of ground breaking new technology that has set the scientific world on fire, reinventing genetic research and making it possible to perform microsurgery on DNA. In 2016, both researchers received a l’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award in recognition of their achievements – Emmanuelle Charpentier is the laureate for Europe while Jennifer Doudna is the 2016 laureate for North America.

While working on Streptococcus pyogenes, more familiar to us as one of the bacteria responsible for sore throats, Emmanuelle Charpentier was fascinated by the way that it defended itself against attack by phages, viruses that hunt down bacteria. In a breakthrough piece of work, published in Nature in 2011*, she described how the bacteria uses pieces of DNA it collects from its foes to immunize itself against further attack. She identified and characterized the components of this system, now known as the CRISPR-Cas9 system. This was a stunning discovery. Her research later went on to elaborate in greater detail that this exact system targets the DNA of the virus for its destruction.

In 2011, at her request, she began collaboration with Jennifer Doudna to further elucidate the structure of the CRISPR-Cas9 complex. In a landmark paper published in Science in 2012 that reflected work from both labs, they reported that the targeting mechanism could be harnessed as a powerful programmable genome editing technology, and that the duplex of RNA molecules could be further adapted as a single RNA guide, providing a convenient and versatile laboratory technology for gene editing. Both researchers quickly realized that gene editing raised many potential ethical concerns.

Professor Charpentier has been immensely generous with her time, helping other scientists understand how to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology in their work. As a result, its use has spread like wildfire in the science community. It has literally reinvented genetic research.

Like Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier, many women scientists are changing the world through their research. Yet disparities between men and women in science are still considerable today. Through the For Women in Science Programme, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Corporate Foundation seek to recognise women researchers who, through the scope of their work, have contributed to overcoming the global challenges of tomorrow. A manifesto for women in science was launched in Paris at the close of the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award ceremony, to draw attention to the need to ensure gender parity in science. Join the movement for women in science, sign the manifesto.


* CRISPR – An elegant but Lethal Weapon, in Nature, 2011