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Emmanuelle Charpentier: Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020

Emmanuelle Charpentier remains unknown to the scientific world until recently. She had to move between 9 different institutes before they finally offered her a position with proper support and funding. Today she is a Nobel Laureate. She is also the Director of the prestigious institute, Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

Emmanuelle Charpentier was born in France in 1968. Her father was a park manager and her mother worked in psychiatry. Both of her parents were very supportive of her and encourage her independence.

Growing up, her parents encourage Charpentier to explore and choose what she loves. But how do you choose when you have so many options and you love all of them? She loves pure science and mathematics.  But she also loves human science such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy. In the end, she chooses science. But why did she choose science and not psychology? Well, her father used to teach her the names of various plants in Latin. Maybe this influenced her to study pure science. That’s what Charpentier believe when they asked her why she chooses science.

When she was around 12 years old, she promised her family that she would study at Pierre and Marie Curie University when she grows older. She did not break her promise. Charpentier did her undergraduate and her graduate studies at Pierre and Marie Curie University.

After her master’s, she went to Pasteur Institute for her Ph.D. She loved being a scientist. Doing research is what she loves. She also enjoys solitude while doing research. Charpentier is also a person with a strong will. Rodger Novak, a postdoctoral researcher who worked with her said, “She is like a dog with a bone — tenacious.” During her Ph.D., at Pasteur Institute, Charpentier was a typical French girl. She thought that after a brief excursion, she would work the rest of her life at home. But maybe she was different after all.

After her Ph.D., she applied for several labs in the US and got many offers. She chooses a lab at Rockefeller University in New York, to work on the pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae. She worked in the genetic engineering of bacteria.

After her post-doctoral work, Charpentier returned to Europe. The first thing she wants was independence. So, she had to build her own lab, from the scratch. She has spent years moving to 9 different institutes in 5 different countries over the past 20 years. Moving to different institutes was difficult for her.

Charpentier started working on CRISPR in the early 2000s. It was a niche topic at the time. Only a few microbiologists were studying them. Today, she is an expert in the CRISPR field. But back then, she was an outsider in the CRISPR community.

She made a collaboration with Jörg Vogel, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology who has expertise on RNA genome.

In 2008, Vogel had sequenced all the small RNA produce by the bacterium, streptococcus pyogenes. When they saw the sequencing results, they noticed something new in the sequence. There are a huge number of a particular RNA sequence. They named this RNA, trans-activating CRISPR RNA or tracr RNA. But they don’t know the function of this RNA. Only one RNA molecule, CRISPR RNA was known to work in the CRISPR system.

A Bioinformatics software at Charpentier’s lab predicted that these tracr RNA is located near the CRISPR locus. This suggested that tracr RNA may likely be a part of the CRISPR system. Charpentier wants to understand how this tracr RNA work along with Cas protein and CRISPR RNA. But nobody in Charpentier’s lab wants to study them. A new master student, at last, volunteered to do the experiment. Her name is Elitza Deltcheva.

Deltcheva started working on the experiment.

In the summer 2009, Deltcheva got the research done, she explained how tracer RNA and CRISPR RNA worked together. They submitted their manuscript to Nature. After submission, Charpentier presented the work at the CRISPR meeting in the Netherlands. Her work becomes the highlight of the meeting. Nobody expects her as she was not even an expert on CRISPR at the time.

In 2011, Emmanuelle Charpentier met Jennifer Doudna at a Microbiology conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Jennifer Doudna was already a recognized structural biologist. Doudna was trying to understand how CRISPR Cas9 protein works from the structural point of view. When they met for the first time, they instantly got along well and they collaborated. Their collaboration led to another key discovery, How Cas 9 cleaved DNA. They published their paper in Science in 2012. Since then, CRISPR has revolutionized the field of Biology.

Since 2015, Charpentier is the Director of the prestigious institute, Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.

In 2018, she also founded an independent research institute, The Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens.

She founded a biotech company called CRISPR Therapeutics in 2018. The company is working on cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, and certain types of eye disease. Today the company is valued $2.5 Billion. They have their office in US, Switzerland and UK.

Emmanuelle Charpentier is also the founder of an intellectual property firm, ERS Genomics.

In August 2020, she along with Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the genome editing tool, CRISPR Cas.

They became the first female duo to win a Nobel prize.

They continue to inspire millions of girls worldwide.

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