A ‘Swiss army knife’ for genetic engineering

Home Q&A A ‘Swiss army knife’ for genetic engineering

Prize-winning French biologist Emmanuelle Charpentier explains her revolutionary discovery.

Portrait photo of Emmanuelle Charpentier in an office

TECHNOLOGIST What exactly is CRISPR/Cas9?

EMMANUELLE CHARPENTIER It’s a new technology that makes genetic manipulation fast and simple. It originates from an ancient bacterial immune system, and now can be used to insert or delete a gene in any cell or whole organism. It quickly emerged as the Swiss Army knife of genetic engineering.

TECHNOLOGIST How did you make the discovery?

EMMANUELLE CHARPENTIER We started with a fundamental question: how do bacteria evade virus infections? CRISPR/Cas9 breaks down viral DNA in a very precise manner. The simplicity and specificity of the system were the eye-opener because they are key features to a good genome-editing tool. When they first demonstrated the role of CRISPR/Cas9 in bacteria, colleagues in the dairy industry already had an application in mind: making yogurt-producing microorganisms more robust.

TECHNOLOGIST Did you ever consider giving it a simpler name?

EMMANUELLE CHARPENTIER (Laughs) Yes, there were discussions. But we realised that in the age of Flickr and such, an exotic name makes people curious. The seemingly complicated scientific terminology also reflects the system’s biological origins.

TECHNOLOGIST Does this technology have applications in gene therapy?

EMMANUELLE CHARPENTIER What makes this new tool attractive for medicine is a combination of two factors: the precision of the genetic manipulation and the maturity of DNA sequencing techniques that allow a thorough validation of the procedure. Unwanted side effects can be prevented.

TECHNOLOGIST Why did you return to Europe after six years in the U.S.?

EMMANUELLE CHARPENTIER Living in the U.S. made me realise what it means to be European. I liked New York City because it has a European feel, but moving back felt like the natural thing to do. On the professional side, I miss some of the stimulating aspects of American research institutions. It is still difficult to be mobile in Europe, where every institution and country has a different academic system, but as my case demonstrates that is slowly improving.

April the 16th, Time Magazine named Emmanuelle Charpentier one of the 100 most influential people in the world 2015


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