“A Swiss Army knife for genetic engineering”

Technologist: What exactly is CRISPR/Cas9?

Emmanuelle Charpentier: It’s a new technology that makes genetic mani-pulation fast and simple. It originates from an ancient bacterial immune system, and now can be used to insert or delete a gene in any cell or whole organism. It quickly emerged as the Swiss Army knife of genetic engineering.

T. How did you make the discovery?

E. C. We started with a fundamental question: how do bacteria evade virus infec-tions? CRISPR/Cas9 breaks down viral DNA in a very precise manner. The simplicity and specificity of the system were the eye-opener because they are key features to a good genome-editing tool. When they first demonstrated the role of CRISPR/Cas9 in bacteria, colleagues in the dairy industry already had an application in mind: making yogurt-producing microor-ganisms more robust.

T. Did you ever consider giving it a simpler name?

E. C. (Laughs) Yes, there were discussions. But we realized that in the age of Flickr and such, an exotic name makes people curious. The seemingly complicated scientific terminology also reflects the system’s biological origins.

T. Does this technology have applications in gene therapy?

E. C. What makes this new tool attractive for medicine is a combination of two factors: the precision of the genetic manipulation and the maturity of DNA sequencing tech-niques that allow a thorough validation of the procedure. Unwanted side effects can be prevented.

T. Why did you return to Europe after six years in the U.S.?

E. C. Living in the U.S. made me realize what it means to be European. I liked New York City because it has a European feel, but moving back felt like the natural thing to do. On the professional side, I miss some of the stimulating aspects of American research institu-tions. It is still difficult to be mobile in Europe, where every institution and country has a different academic system, but as my case demonstrates that is slowly improving.

Winner of the 700,000 Swiss francs 2015 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine, Emmanuelle Charpentier works at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig and at the Hannover Medical School, Germany. She is also affiliated with the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden at Umeå University.