• Prof. Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, Brain City Berlin

    "Basic research is the basis for innovation"

In 2020, Prof. Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier brought the Nobel Prize to Berlin. The last person to do so was the writer Herta Müller, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. Emmanuelle Charpentier was awarded the prestigious Swedish foundation prize in the field of chemistry together with the American Jennifer Doudna - for a groundbreaking development: the Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors. What has happened since then? What projects is Emmanuelle Charpentier currently working on? And what are the professional and private goals of the microbiologist, who has been the founder as well as Scientific and Managing Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens (MPUSP) since 2018? In the Brain City interview, she tells us more about her research, the advantages of Berlin as a science location - and her love of sports and culture.

Prof. Charpentier, you don't receive a Nobel Prize every day. What has changed for you personally since 2020?

The three-month period following the announcement of the Nobel Prize in October 2020 I was overwhelmed with all kinds of requests, interviews and approaches. But this was nothing new for me, as my life began to change slowly in 2014 and overwhelmingly from 2015 to 2019 with the worldwide recognition of my CRISPR research and the hype that developed around it very quickly. To this day, and probably for the rest of my life, there will not be a day when someone does not reach out to me.

You founded the Max-Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin in 2018. For what purpose?

The institute is dedicated to the study of the fundamental molecular and cellular regulatory mechanisms of pathogenic bacteria that cause disease in humans, focusing on Gram-positive bacteria, in particular Streptococcus pyogenes. As you know, we are facing a major problem worldwide regarding antimicrobial resistance, which means that conventional antibiotic treatments are no longer responding. On the other hand, our body, and more specifically our microbiome, is composed of 'good' bacteria that play a key role in regulating the immune system. Our aim is to discover new mechanisms that, in addition to improving our understanding of how pathogenic bacteria interact with the human host, could also lead to new ways of treating bacterial infections or to new genetic technologies. This is what our previous research on Streptococcus pyogenes and CRISPR has shown.

What are the research topics you are working on at the moment?

Our research focuses on understanding how RNAs and proteins control molecular and cellular processes at the transcriptional, post-transcriptional and post-translational levels. We study regulatory RNAs and proteins in various biological pathways, such as horizontal gene transfer, adaptation to stress, physiology, persistence, virulence, infection and immunity. In particular, we investigate interference systems in the defense against genetic elements (CRISPR-Cas), small regulatory RNAs that interfere with pathogenic processes, protein quality control that regulates bacterial adaptation, physiology and virulence as well as basic principles of DNA replication and its role for life. We also look at the interactions of bacteria and their vesicles with the innate immunity of the human host. To do this, we at MPUSP use an interdisciplinary approach. It is based on a combination of cutting-edge methodologies to identify new molecules and mechanisms, and decipher their origins, functions and modes of action at the molecular and cellular levels.

Why is it so important to support fundamental research in the field of Biotechnology and Biomedicine?

It may sound trivial, but there can be no breakthrough innovation without basic research. Basic research is all the more essential when it is driven by curiosity - at least it should be. The amount of knowledge gained through basic research will, at some point, be beneficial to applied research and to innovation. This is especially true in the fields of biology and biomedical research. If you look at the CRISPR technology, it is now being used and developed by scientists around the world and leads to innovative applications in medicine, agriculture and biotechnology. From the beginning, it was my profound interest in microbiology, and specifically in the mechanisms that regulate gene expression in bacteria, that ultimately lead to revealing the amazing CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism. So yes, as a microbiologist, I am very committed to basic science. I strongly believe that basic research is the basis of innovation and that it benefits the economy and society.

Why did you choose Berlin as your „homebase“?

As is often the case in the life of a scientist, my move to Berlin was not particularly planned. In 2012, I was recruited to the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig with an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship at the Hannover Medical School. Shortly after my move, the Max Planck Society obviously realised that I “existed” and recruited me in 2015. That is how I finally landed in Berlin!

What are the pros of Berlin as a place for science and research? 

There is no doubt that Berlin has a high density of universities, academic institutions and research performing institutions. This is a major advantage when compared to other places in Germany and abroad. In addition, the Berlin Senate has in past and recent years supported science and research, as it has recognized the research and innovation potential that is most valuable for the city’s wealth, although it could still do more. This is also reflected in the achievements of Berlin’s universities within the framework of the German Federal Government’s Excellence Strategy. The several clusters of excellence, the Berlin University Alliance, the BR50: all these structures contribute to a fruitful interconnection between people and institutions and to interdisciplinary thinking, provided that scientists at all levels have the time and means to interact! 

How do your institute and yourself benefit from the close networking interactions with other Berlin based scientific institutions?

First of all, network interactions lead to greater visibility, which is important when leading a young and very small institute like the one I founded. Secondly, these interactions often lead to interdisciplinarity and collaborations, which are always powerful drivers in science. Being located on the Charité Campus in Berlin Mitte at reasonable distances from institutions located elsewhere in Berlin is an excellent opportunity to interact with many institutions in the city.

MPUSP has explicitly taken up the cause of promoting young scientists ...

Young scientists are the 'fuel' without which any research institute could function and excel. The institute I lead is very small. We are only three principal investigators: Marc Erhardt, Kürsad Turgay and myself. The majority of our scientists are postdocs, PhD students and undergraduates. Our aim is to provide our young scientists with an interactive, dynamic and competitive environment where they are constantly supported to carry out original research projects and where they have the freedom to work on fundamental biological questions.

In your private life, you are very much interested in arts, music and dance. Does this artistic balance inspire your work as a researcher?

I have always been interested in the arts, music and dance, but I no longer play the piano or do ballet or contemporary dance. But I must say that the piano and dance I practiced in my youth taught me the concepts of discipline, repetition, coordination, stamina, and performance, which is somewhat of an excellent foundation for my later activities in the field of scientific research. Unfortunately, I have very limited time to explore Berlin's art galleries and museums and to attend concerts, theaters and dance performances. In recent years, I have been focusing on sports in my limited free time, and I really enjoy it!

What is your personal goal for 2023?

The institute I run is still quite young and there is still a lot to do to establish a sustainable structure that would allow me to spend more time on science and interaction with the scientists in my lab. I would also like to continue to focus on sports – improve my performance! And - not to forget - to visit a few cultural events. (vdo)

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