Juliette Fédry, “Working towards the ‘birth’ of new vaccines”

Fellow 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science, Juliette Fédry studies the molecule which is necessary for fertilization in numerous plants, animal and parasites.

We have known since the 20th century that the key stage in sexual reproduction is the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm. Yet it remains a process about which surprisingly little is known: which molecule is responsible for the fusion of the membrane of these two cells to form the egg-cell? 

This is a question that Juliette Fedry, a PhD student at the structural virology unit of the Institut Pasteur, hopes to answer. This young woman from Lyon is fascinated by the HAP2 protein, a molecule which is necessary for fertilization in plants, algae and numerous animal invertebrates, as well as some parasites, such as the malaria agent. “By determining the atomic structure of HAP2, I have shown that this is the first known molecule responsible for fusing the sperm and the ovum membranes in numerous living species”.

The work done by Juliette Fédry and her colleagues has uncovered an unexpected resemblance between the structure of the fertilization protein HAP2 and that of the proteins which enable viruses like Zika or Chikungunya to infect cells. This suggests that viruses could be behind sexual reproduction on Earth, or inversely, that they acquired the fertility molecule in order to better infect the cells that they target. 

This understanding of the molecular mechanism for fertilization therefore holds key information that will enable significant advances to be made in the development of new vaccines which combat numerous parasites, such as the one responsible for malaria, by blocking their sexual reproduction and hence their transmission. One step closer to eradicating these agents which are pathogenic to humans.

Watch her performance and let us know @4womeninscience

For Women in Science

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