Emmanuelle Charpentier – a role model for young female researchers

Microbiologist, biochemist and geneticist Prof. Emanuelle Charpentier gave the Elena Timoféeff-Ressovsky Lecture at the Max Delbrück Center, presenting her famous discovery, the function of the CRISPR-Cas system. This pair of “molecular scissors” can be used to accurately edit genetic material and is applied as a tool by researchers worldwide. After the event, Charpentier discussed her research, as well as working conditions for women scientists in Germany.

Science doesn’t exactly have popstars, but groundbreaking discoveries often bring a measure of fame to those who make them. Young laboratory researchers have plenty of role models – but there is a lack of women. There are still far fewer female than male professors at universities, and just a meager five percent of Nobel Prize winners are women.

Research like Emmanuelle

Emmanuelle Charpentier presents the CRISPR-Cas system in front of the MDC audience. Image: Anyess von Bock/MDC.

One hot candidate for a Nobel Prize is Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier, renowned for her co-discovery of the gene scissors CRISPR-Cas. Charpentier, who is a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, was invited by Dr. Christiane Nolte, Women’s Representative at the MDC, to give a lecture on September 7 as part of the Elena Timoféeff-Ressovsky lecture series. The series, named after an eminent female Russian scientist who researched on the Buch Campus from 1925–46, is entitled Notable Women in Science & Medicine. Its purpose is to present successful role models to young women scientists and to encourage them in their own careers. In post-lecture conversations with the speakers, audiences can discuss their own questions relating to the topic of women in science.

Prof. Charpentier’s lecture packed the MDC auditorium full of students, researchers and team leaders who wanted to learn more about her and her gene scissors.

CRISPR-Cas9 is actually part of the immune system


Emmanuelle Charpentier is explaining the function of CRISPR-Cas in front of a packed room. Image: Anyess von Bock/MDC.

Viruses that infect bacteria – bacteriophages (Greek: “bacteria eaters”) – were actually researched by Max Delbrück himself, and his experiments laid the foundation for modern molecular genetics. The bacteria use CRISPR-Cas to fight these viruses. Since the 1980s, research teams worldwide have been exploring this bacterial immune system.

Bacterial cells store a copy of the invaders’ genetic material in so-called CRISPR sequences. RNA copies of these sequences and Cas proteins then form the famous gene scissors that locate and cut through the foreign genetic material. The viral DNA is thus destroyed and rendered harmless.

Many important details of this system were not known until recently and it attracted little attention, even among specialists. That only changed with a discovery made by Charpentier’s research group. In her lecture, she presented the core team of CRISPR-Cas researchers, with special reference to Elitza Deltcheva, who had already worked in her lab as a Master’s student.

“Elitza started this project and really pushed it forward,” said Charpentier. Deltcheva and Chylinski conducted the crucial initial experiments that elucidated the first role of tracrRNA in Streptococcus pyogenes. Following on the CRISPR-Cas9 pathway, it was then ultimately found that tracrRNA together with CRISPR RNA targets Cas9 to the DNA, which is then cut. Without tracrRNA, the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism cannot function. These results were published in Nature in 2011 and in Science in 2012 and marked the beginning of the group’s continued success. Today, the system is considered one of the most important tools for molecular biology.

A great tool for genetic researchers

Because the system cuts genetic material so accurately, it is ideal for modifying any genetic sequence. Unlike similar systems, such as TALENs and zinc finger nucleases, it is flexible, cheap, fast, efficient, and precise. Further publications by Charpentier and her co-workers were followed by widespread adoption by laboratories around the globe. The method is regularly used at the MDC to alter biochemical signal pathways and develop new model systems.

“The scientific community obviously was in need of a tool like this, explaining why so many scientists tried out the system so quickly. Just six months after the tool was developed it was being used for bacteria, model organisms such as drosophila and zebrafish, plant and mammalian cells,” Charpentier said.

Her group is still setting the pace of research into the CRISPR-Cas system worldwide and continuing to refine the CRISPR-Cas toolbox even further. It has now found variations of the CRISPR-Cas system in hundreds of species of bacteria and organized them into different classes. This diversity has great advantages, as it expands the range of tools and can be adapted for various purposes.

“The people in my team are working on various projects. We are not only working on CRISPR-Cas9 in our lab,” Charpentier added. Her team is still dealing with many other aspects of bacterial physiology, meaning that the microbiologist is remaining true to her original interests.

What are the keys to success?

Emmanuelle Charpentier in discussions after the lecture. Image: Anyess von Bock/MDC.

With her glittering career, Emmanuelle Charpentier is an ideal role model for any scientist. Over the last 25 years, she has researched as a microbiologist, biochemist and geneticist at nine different institutions in five countries. Currently, she is a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin’s Mitte district. She has received numerous prestigious awards in the last two years, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, the Otto Warburg Medal, and the Canada Gairdner International Award. In 2014 she co-founded together with Rodger Novak and Shaun Foy the biotech company CRISPR Therapeutics, which raised almost $89 million in venture capital in record time. This success has brought her increased media attention.

In an interview after the lecture, Charpentier noted that committee work and political acumen are becoming increasingly important while climbing the career ladder. These activities and working as a researcher take a good deal of stamina. “If a scientist has arrived at a point in her career where she wants to take a leading role, she should just go ahead and do that and not ask too many questions. If you are dedicated and work hard, doors will always open for you” – that is Charpentier’s advice to young women scientists.



Graphics: Lukas Eckardt