Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate for Europe, is a highly respected microbiologist and geneticist. For some time she had been working on Streptococcus pyogenes, more familiar to us as one of the bacteria responsible for sore throats. In particular she 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 so called CRISPR sequences (cf CRISPR – An elegant but Lethal Weapon) containing pieces of DNA taken by the bacteria from its foes and that it uses these to immunize itself against further attack.
She identified and characterized the components of the now known as - CRISPR-Cas9 system - in the pathogen S. pyogenes, namely the enzyme Cas9 and a duplex of RNA molecules containing the memorized foe. 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 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. Charpentier quickly realized that gene editing raised many potential ethical concerns, which she stated in the journal Le Monde.
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.