Emmanuelle Charpentier: The Genome Editing Pioneer

Read more about Emmanuelle Charpentier, French professor, and 2020 Nobel Prize Laureate behind genome editing.
Birthplace: Juvisy-sur-Orge, France
Beginning: Charpentier worked as a university teaching assistant at UPMC
Invention: CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that edits genome
‍Industry: Science
Success: Nobel Prize Laureate Behind Genome Editing
Recognition: Appeared in Time100: Pioneers for her brilliant contribution to life sciences
Honors: 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Nov 25, 2022
Emmanuelle Charpentier: Nobel Genius Behind Genome
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Modern Hero of Medicine and Science

What if you had the power to change the world, would you? 

What if you could be a modern hero in changing the world using your talents? Offer wisdom, offer solutions, provide discoveries in promoting better health, would you?

Some people jump to the earliest opportunity for the betterment of life. Some are working to alleviate poverty, while others seek solutions to climate change and advocate for world peace. People are grappling with difficulties that touch us throughout the world. The absence of answers in the face of bodily diseases and disorders is one of the most pressing worries.

But, there have been a lot of revolutionary works. One, in particular, has paved the way for genetic cutting and gene modifications, which have the potential to cure cancer, blood disorders, blindness, AIDS, and other diseases. Thanks to Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist who pioneered medical treatments for hereditary illnesses. In the realm of research, she devoted most of her life looking for remedies to many deteriorating health issues.

She is the modern hero of medicine and science. 


​​Early Life of Emmanuelle Charpentier

“Cela nous concerne tous.”

Translated to English as “This concerns all of us,” a phrase that the French know well on how the May 68 revolt started a revolution of “daily life”—a statement critical to comprehending 1968’s cultural-political consequences.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s being born during the May 68 revolt‍

Beginning in May 1968, France witnessed a time of civil unrest. Demonstrations, general strikes, and the takeover of colleges and factories were all part of the civil unrest. Trade union confederations called sympathy strikes, and they spread faster than expected. It was the largest general strike in French history.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s early life and the France Civil Protest in 1968

The civil protest lasted for seven weeks, starting on May 2nd until June 23rd, 1968. The same year, Emmanuelle Charpentier was born, on December 11, 1968. Even though she was born six months after the May 68 revolution, Emmanuelle spent her infancy in the aftermath during the height of the student and civil protest movements.

Emmanuelle Charpentier as the Modern Hero of Medicine and Science

The civil protesters aimed for a better future for the nation, protesting to send a message to have a better time to come against capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and traditional institutions. Being born in a history-carving time, Emmanuelle unknowingly pursued a future that concerns all of us, which is science. As a diligent student focused on her academics, she was interested in many things, including pure science and mathematics. She was also interested in the human sciences—psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

Charpentier’s Family Life

What was Emmanuelle Charpentier's childhood like? Born in Juvisy-sur-Orge, a quiet small town 25 kilometers south of Paris, Emmanuelle grew up always eager to attain excellence. Emmanuelle Charpentier’s childhood was full of wonder. Emmanuelle’s parents encouraged her to discover her academic gifts. 

Her father, a park manager, enjoyed explaining the Latin names of many plants and nudged her curiosity to pursue science. Her mother, working in psychiatry, solidified her direction later on toward medical-oriented studies through her mother’s influence. Emmanuelle Charpentier’s parents were a big part of how her future was shaped. 

Emmanuelle followed her two sisters’ path as they entered university and saw that it is a place to learn, teach, and transfer knowledge. Her family’s solid academic background allowed her to be motivated to finish her studies and more determined to understand the importance of showcasing discoveries. But what did Emmanuelle Charpentier study?

Education of Emmanuelle Charpentier

Emmanuelle completed her undergraduate studies at Pierre and Marie Curie University, earning a degree in biochemistry in 1991.

Pierre and Marie Curie University, or Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC), is 542nd globally, 191st in Europe, and 14th in France by aggregated alumni prominence. UPMC merged with Paris-Sorbonne University into a combined Sorbonne University on January 1st, 2018.

Pierre and Marie Curie University were ranked as the best university in France in medicine and health sciences by Times Higher Education in 2018. Emmanuelle Charpentier’s education was preceded by more postdoctoral degrees.

Pierre and Marie Curie University Alumni Infographics

Charpentier’s Career and Research

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s Career and Research

Completing her undergraduate and master’s studies at UPMC, Emmanuelle decided to proceed with her doctoral studies because of her curiosity about micro-organisms and infectious diseases at Pasteur Institute or Institut Pasteur. 

Does Emmanuelle Charpentier have a Ph.D.? 

Emmanuelle obtained her Ph.D. in Microbiology in 1995 in the same school.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s mentors greatly inspired her during her time at Pasteur Institute. Their passion and advocacy for fundamental research in microbiology motivated Emmanuelle Charpentier. Emmanuelle has realized that being a research scientist would fit many aspects of her personality, including her curiosity and intellectual drive for knowledge. 

Emmanuelle’s enjoyment of communicating knowledge to others and working as a team adds to her desire to translate complex scientific discoveries into practical applications that benefit society. She was enthusiastic about becoming a scientist.

What type of scientist is Emmanuelle Charpentier? 

Scientific fields such as molecular biology, genetics, immunology, biochemistry, and interdisciplinary research surround microbiology.

Using information from several scientific fields gives birth to scientific innovation, sometimes adjacent, sometimes far from its own. Extracting knowledge from several scientific areas enabled Dr. Charpentier to produce new concepts by thinking across borders. 

Emmanuelle was inspired to create new milestones by thinking across boundaries. After her time as a Ph.D. student, she joined the group of Elaine Tuomanen at the Rockefeller University in New York, where Emanuelle Charpentier took a postdoctoral fellowship. Another noteworthy genius who took fellowships is Luis von Ahn who pioneered crowdsourcing and made a mark in the field of technology.

Charpentier’s First Job Ventures

United States

What was Charpentier's first work? Just like Ursula Burns who went to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which is now New York University Tandon School of Engineering, Charpentier worked as an assistant research scientist at the New York University Medical Center from 1997 to 1999. Emmanuelle worked in Pamela Cowin’s lab, a skin-cell biologist interested in mammalian gene manipulation. Emmanuelle Charpentier’s postdoctoral fellowship later released a study in which she researched the control of hair development in mice. From 1999 to 2002, she held the Research Associate position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine in New York.

Vienna, Austria

After five years in the United States, Emmanuelle Charpentier returned to Europe to establish her research group. Like the talented Chemistry professor Leo Baekeland, she became the laboratory head and a guest professor at the Institute of Microbiology and Genetics, University of Vienna from 2002 to 2004.

In 2004, Emmanuelle published her discovery of an RNA molecule involved in controlling virulence-factor synthesis in Streptococcus pyogenes.

From 2004 to 2006, she was lab director and Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology after Emmanuelle Charpentier’s RNA molecule structure discovery. In 2006, Emmanuelle got her habilitation and became a private docent in Microbiology at the Center of Molecular Biology. 

From 2006 to 2009, she held the positions of laboratory head and Associate Professor at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories.

Sweden

Emmanuelle Charpentier moved to Sweden. She held the Associate Professor position and then Guest Professor position at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden at Umeå University in Sweden, where she habilitated in Medical Microbiology. She was a group leader from 2008 to 2013 and was Visiting Professor from 2014 to 2017.

Germany

After her achievements in Sweden, Emmanuelle expanded her horizons and visions. From 2013 to 2015, she moved to Germany and held the position of W3 Professor and acted as department head at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig and the Hannover Medical School. Emmanuelle Charpentier became an Alexander von Humboldt Professor in 2014.

Emmanuelle Charpentier accepted a position as a scientific member of the German Max Planck Society and director head of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. In 2006, she was an Honorary Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. She has served as the Founding and Acting Director of the Max Planck Unit for Pathogen Science since 2018. 

Emmanuelle Charpentier remained a Visiting Professor at Umeå University until the end of 2017. New funding from the Kempe Foundations and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation enabled her to offer more young researchers opportunities within Emmanuelle Charpentier’s MIMS Laboratory research groups. 

CRISPR/Cas9

While in Vienna, Emmanuelle Charpentier took an interest in bacterial regulation systems using micro RNA molecules. Emmanuelle Charpentier's RNA molecule structure and function started the CRISPR-Cas9 project after moving to Umeå.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s discovery, CRISPR - CAS9 Gene Editing Tool‍

TracrRNA was one of the RNAs that piqued her laboratory’s interest. What did Emmanuelle Charpentier discover? This RNA was spotted near CRISPR or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are unusual DNA sequences—deciphering the CRISPR/Cas9 bacterial immune system molecular mechanisms repurposing it as a tool for genome editing.

When a virus attacks the bacterium, a snapshot of the virus’s genetic identity is recorded on the CRISPR sequences and used to reject the virus if it strikes again. Bacterial CRISPR-Cas systems have developed considerably. However, no one knew how the procedure for the so-called type II system worked (CRISPR-Cas9). 

What is CRISPR RNA?

In 2011, Emmanuelle published a research paper in Nature identifying the vital function of trans-acting CRISPR RNA (tracrRNA) in the growth of CRISPR-mediated viral resistance.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met in Puerto Rico‍

That same year, Emmanuelle Charpentier met American structural scientist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, delving into CRISPR systems from a structural perspective while attending a conference in Puerto Rico. When two scientists with the same ideas meet, collaboration happens.

Emmanuelle Charpentier shared her fruitful collaboration with Dr. Doudna

Emmanuelle Charpentier on her collaboration with Dr. Doudna
How did Dr. Doudna and Dr. Charpentier discover CRISPR Technology? 

In August 2012, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna published a study in science that revolutionized molecular genetics. Their study showed that when infected bacteria are with a virus for the second time, the viral genetic information stored on the CRISPR sequence (expressed as dual tracrRNA:crRNA) attracts and retains an enzyme called Cas9 that demolishes viral DNA by fragmenting it. 

This discovery has launched a completely new and intriguing approach to genome editing since it provides a surgical-like method for deleting or inserting DNA at specific spots. Many laboratories across the globe are already using the technology to help find new medical treatments for various diseases and genetic defects. It also allowed researchers to modify the DNA sequences of plants, animals, and laboratory cell lines.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s CRISPR-Cas9 technology is a DNA-altering tool‍

CRISPR-Cas9 technology is a tool used to alter the genome quickly, and it has revolutionized genetics by empowering scientists to modify genes to investigate their function in health and diseases. This scientific revelation may soon allow medical breakthroughs in ways that few biological innovations have experienced. With the success of their gene-editing technology, Emmanuelle Charpentier went on to create a new institute.

Who are the founders of CRISPR Therapeutics?

Emmanuelle Charpentier co-founded CRISPR Therapeutics and ERS Genomics

In 2013, Emmanuelle Charpentier co-founded CRISPR Therapeutics and ERS Genomics with Shaun Foy and Rodger Novak.

CRISPR/Cas9 Gene Editing

CRISPR/Cas9 uses to perform three types of genetic edits:

DISRUPT

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s work in DNA fragment disruption‍

During non-homologous end joining, base pairs are added or deleted if a single cut is made, altering the DNA sequence and leading to gene inactivation.

DELETE

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s work in DNA fragment deletion

A larger DNA fragment can be deleted by utilizing two guide RNAs that target different locations. After cleavage at each site, non-homologous end joining links the separated ends while deleting the intervening sequence. 

CORRECT OR INSERT

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s scientific discovery known as homology-directed repair

The cell can repair a gene or introduce a new gene using a DNA template in conjunction with the CRISPR/Cas9 machinery, known as homology-directed repair.

The goal of CRISPR/Cas9 is to target the cause of genetically specified illnesses and to engineer the next generation of cellular therapeutics. When disrupted, CRISPR/Cas9 can either target genes that may increase the therapy’s safety or efficacy or introduce new genes to offer the cells new capabilities for cell treatments. 

Scientists can modify cells either ex vivo (outside the body) or in vivo (inside the body).

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s Ex Vivo (Outside the body) cell modification
Emmanuelle Charpentier’s In Vivo (Inside the body) cell modification

What does CRISPR Therapeutics do? 

CRISPR Therapeutics, co-founded by Emmanuelle Charpentier, is rapidly translating a specific, compelling, and adaptive CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool into treatments for hemoglobinopathies, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s Achievements

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s Personal Awards and Achievements throughout the years

Awards and Recognitions of Emanuelle Charpentier

Knowledge is humanity's most valuable possession. It characterizes our nature and will influence our destiny—the corpus of knowledge accumulated over millennia. However, a single thought may help broaden it. 

Charpentier has received many international prizes, awards, and recognitions. 

What awards has Emmanuelle Charpentier won?

BBVA Foundation Frontiers

She shared the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award with Jennifer Doudna and Francisco Mojica for their groundbreaking work that has sparked the revolution in biology enabled by CRISPR/Cas 9 technology.

Great scientists enhance what concerns all of us. They allow technology that makes our lives easier, but they also show us what is possible beyond our reach.

Alexander von Humboldt Professorship

Alexander von Humboldt Professorship is a highly endowed research prize in Germany. And the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation decided to make Emmanuelle Charpentier one of its recipients of the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship in 2014.

Emmanuelle Charpentier is regarded as one of the most forward-thinking science researchers in the fields of RNA regulation and molecular biological infection research. Her well-known work includes studies on bacterial pathogens and bacteria's capacity to fight themselves against diseases. Her highly acclaimed research and scientific work prove why she received favorable recognition.

Time 100: Pioneers
Emmanuelle Charpentier appeared in Time 100: Pioneers in 2015

In 2015, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna appeared in Time 100: Pioneers, recognized for their brilliant contributions to life sciences. Both women are pioneers in editing genetic codes that could be a game-changer in fighting against microbes, cancer, and other genetic diseases. Assembled by American news magazine Time, Time 100 is a yearly listicle of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

The Breakthrough Prize, called The Oscars of Science, organizes an annual live, internationally televised gala awards event to honor the laureates' accomplishments, encourage broad popular support for scientific initiatives, and inspire the next generation of scientists.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their groundbreaking innovation on CRISPR-Cas9. Emmanuelle Charpentier is famous for what she has discovered.

Kavli Prize in Nanoscience

In the field of science, receiving Kavli Prize is a proper appreciation for your efforts. The Kavli Prize recognizes scientists with advanced astrophysics, nanoscience, and neurology, revolutionizing our understanding from the simplest to the most complex.

In 2018, the Norwegian Academy of Science & Letters awarded its biennial Kavli Prize in Nanoscience to three of CRISPR’s pioneers: Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, and Virginijus Šikšnys. Virginijus Šikšnys is also a CRISPR pioneer, independently explaining CRISPR-potential Cas9's for gene editing in a research paper published in September 2012.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Emmanuelle Charpentier was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

A Nobel Prize is widely considered the world's most prestigious honor for intellectual accomplishment by Alfred Nobel, granted in six categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economics.

What is Emmanuelle Charpentier famous for? 

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their work on CRISPR-Cas9, a technique for editing DNA. The Nobel Committee honored the two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna with a Nobel Prize for discovering that a microbial immune mechanism may be converted into a tool that can quickly and cheaply modify genomes with great accuracy.

Nobel Prize Awarded Women Infographics

Other Awards and Honors of Charpentier:

  • 2017 – BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (jointly with Jennifer Doudna and Francisco Mojica)
  • 2017 – Japan Prize (jointly with Jennifer Doudna)
  • 2017 – Albany Medical Center Prize (jointly with Jennifer Doudna, Luciano Marraffini, Francisco Mojica, and Feng Zhang)
  • 2018 – Bijvoet Medal of the Bijvoet Center for Biomolecular Research of Utrecht University
  • 2018 – Harvey Prize (jointly with Jennifer Doudna and Feng Zhang)
  • 2019 – Scheele Award of the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society
  • 2020 – Wolf Prize in Medicine (jointly with Jennifer Doudna)

Other Recognitions of Charpentier:

In Popular Culture: Emmanuelle Charpentier

Charpentier appeared as a character in the performance STEM FEMMES by the Philadelphia theater company Applied Mechanics in 2019.

Charpentier’s Personal Life

An autobiography published by the Kavli Foundation detailed how drive and passion for science and medical discoveries beneficially concern us all now and future generations. Emmanuelle Charpentier’s biography explains how she looks at her career in science as a continuous work in progress.

Emmanuelle expressed in her autobiography in The Kavil Foundation, 

Emmanuelle Charpentier’s mindset on challenges in her career

Emmanuelle Charpentier presently resides in Germany. She is the chair of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research and is also an esteemed Professor at the Hannover Medical School. She has still been associated with Umeå University’s Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine in Sweden.

Key Takeaway: Emmanuelle Charpentier

Some are born lucky, but others are lucky to be born. Emmanuelle Charpentier was born during a time when possibilities and opportunities were scarce because of the May 68 civil and student protest movements.

Emmanuelle Charpentier changed the perception of luck and clarified that you have the power of choice to shape your future and opportunities using your talents and resources. Dr. Emmanuelle  Charpentier is doing what Florence Nightingale, the mother of nursing did during Nightingale’s time, Charpentier is trying to go beyond the expectations of science in nursing and medicine.

For tech entrepreneurs or young generations who wish to forge a career in science, imitating Emmanuelle Charpentier’s core qualities helps you reach the goal. For Dr. Charpentier, it was a great discovery that concerns all. 

As an entrepreneur, she was determined and concerned for society through passion and innovation in basic science and technology. As a scientist, she was curious, patient, and enduring. She had the power to change the world, and she did.

If you had the power to change the world, would you?

Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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