The 2021 FEMS-Lwoff Award for Achievements in Microbiology has been awarded to Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin for “harnessing the CRISPR-Cas9 system as an RNA-programmable system for genome editing”. Emmanuelle Charpentier is a French biochemist, microbiologist and geneticist who is recognized as a world-leading expert in regulatory mechanisms that direct processes of infection and immunity in bacterial pathogens causing diseases in humans. The FEMS-Lwoff Award for Achievements in Microbiology recognises an outstanding scientist’s significant contribution to the (European) microbiology research community that has contributed to solving today’s societal problems using microbiology.
In 2011, Prof Charpentier published a landmark article in Nature describing tracrRNA as a key component of the CRISPR-Cas9 system and demonstrating further the role of tracrRNA in the activation of the defense system in the human pathogen Streptococcus pyogenes and other bacterial species (Deltcheva et al., 2011). Shortly afterwards in 2012, Prof Charpentier together with Prof Jennifer Doudna reported in a landmark article in Science how the bacterial protein Cas9 guided by the duplex tracrRNA-CRISPR RNA can identify targets in the invading DNA. They also described how the system can easily be programmed and re-purposed to edit any DNA target of interest (Jinek, Chylinski, et al., 2012).
These ground-breaking findings revolutionised the field of life sciences, offering a tool for the researchers to cut DNA with great precision and to edit, correct and rewrite DNA in multiple organisms. At the beginning of 2013, scientists published the successful use of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology for gene editing in a variety of procaryotic and eukaroytic organisms, ranging from bacteria to flies, fish, mice, plants and human cells.
CRISPR-Cas9 has improved the speed, efficiency and flexibility of genome editing . This new tool is now used in molecular biology laboratories around the world and has the potential to revolutionize medicine by paving the way to finding new forms of treatment for currently incurable diseases. This new understanding enables researchers to rapidly model human disease genes in the laboratory, accelerating the search for new drug leads and opening new doors for the treatment of human genetic disorders. These same features also call for extreme care in employing this novel technology, highlighting the need for continuous exchange of information between research scientists and policy makers for avoiding the risks involved in careless use of these unprecedented research tools. It is hoped that, in the future, the CRISPR breakthrough may lead to the development of innovative treatments for disease and aging.
Prof Charpentier studied biochemistry, microbiology and genetics at the University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris and obtained her PhD in microbiology at the Paris Pasteur Institute. Following a research career in France, the United States, Austria and Sweden, Prof Charpentier was Head of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig, and Professor at the Medical School of Hannover in Germany between 2013 -2015. In 2015, she was appointed Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and in 2018, she founded an independent research institute, the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens. Since 2016, she has also been an honorary professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Launched in 2000, the FEMS-Lwoff Award for Achievements in Microbiology recognises an outstanding scientist’s significant contribution to the (European) microbiology research community that has contributed to solving today’s societal problems using microbiology. It was named in honour of the first FEMS President (1974-1976), Professor André M. Lwoff. Previous winners include Prof Miroslav Radman and Prof Pascale Cossart. A full list of previous winners can be found here: https://fems-microbiology.org/about_fems/network-and-activities/awards/fems-lwoff-award/