Tor 25 jul / År 42 / Nr 3 2024

Genome Engineering Technology from Umeå Breakthrough of the Year 2015

The CRISPR technology based on research of top international scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier at Umeå University has been selected as ’Breakthrough of the Year 2015’ by the online staff and readers of the scientific journal Science. Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier also received the ’Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences 2015’. In addition, she’s been elected into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as a foreign member of the Academy’s Class for biosciences and has been mentioned in Nobel Prize speculations for the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism that can be used for editing an organism’s genome at any desired location.

Emmanuelle Charpentier is a French researcher in Microbiology, Genetics and Biochemistry. She was born in 1968, in Juvisy-sur-Orge in France. She studied biochemistry, microbiology and genetics at the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris and obtained her PhD in Microbiology for her research performed at the Pasteur Institute.
She continued her work in the United States and then returned to Europe to establish her own research group at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories of the University of Vienna. In 2008, she was appointed Associate Professor and then Guest Professor at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) at Umeå University.
At MIMS, which is part of Nordic European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Partnership for Molecular Medicine, Emmanuelle Charpentier was allowed to pursue her research in an environment that allowed her to take risks and where it’s ok to fail sometimes.
”In Umeå, the community of scientists understood the projects that I wanted to study and that great outputs can only be achieved in an environment where you’re allowed to take risks,” she comments.
She thinks that Umeå University has a relaxed way in understanding what is good science and that their scientists are interested in the science of others. ”The collegiate spirit here is more of how it used to be at most departments in the past,” she comments.

Works Like Scissors
Her laboratory started to focus on the CRISPR-Cas9 defence system against viruses of bacteria (the bacteriophages) through her interests in understanding regulation by RNA molecules in the human pathogen, Streptococcus pyogenes. In an article published in Nature (Deltcheva et al, 2011), her group identified the role of two RNAs forming a duplex (tracrRNA and crisprRNA) and the protein Cas9 (formerly named Csn1) component in the early steps of activation of the system (duplex RNA co-processing and in vivo phage sequence targeting). In an article published in Science (Jinek, Chylinski, et al, 2012), she described that the tracrRNA was not just involved in the early steps of activation but was also a critical part of the gene editing complex formed by Cas9 and the duplex of RNAs. The CRISPR-Cas9 complex works like scissors. It can be used to make cuts in any DNA sequence desired. The method they developed involved the combination of Cas9 with easily created synthetic ’guide RNA’ molecules. The impact of the discovery is huge and researchers worldwide have employed the method to efficiently edit the DNA sequences of plants, animals, and laboratory cell lines.
For this achievement Emmanuelle Charpentier has been awarded several international prizes, awards and acknowledgements. A few of them are the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine and the Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious research prize. A few weeks ago, she received the title of ’Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur’, the highest French decoration awarded to people who, by their accomplishments, contribute to the progress of France.

Time Aspect Crucial
She faced no particular hurdles different from what her colleagues usually face in our days, when conducting the research that led to the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism. However, the time aspect was crucial.
”My research needed to be very precise, yet fast. Due to the competitive field one to two months can really make a difference. So, the greatest challenge was actually to be able to employ laboratory team members fast enough. There are a number of restrictions in the new employment contracts of PhD students. It’s not only an issue for Umeå University, but a general trend in academia. If the employment process gets too complex, it gets unproductive,” she says.
In 2015, Charpentier accepted the offer from the German Max Planck Society to become scientific member and director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, where she now leads research on regulatory mechanisms in bacterial pathogens.
”CRISPR-Cas9 is one of multiple defence systems that exist in bacteria. The mechanisms vary slightly depending on the systems and my team is hoping to find novel mechanisms of regulation of gene expression involving protein and RNA regulators, as well as novel properties of bacterial pathogens in their interactions with the human host.”
Thankfully, Umeå hasn’t seen the last of her though.
”I’m Visiting Professor at MIMS where I have a small team of three people, so I’ll continue to visit Umeå on a regular basis,” she concludes.