How a Bacterial Defence System Revolutionizes Biomedical Research

Many past scientific revolutions started with basic research, curiosity and a surprise moment. When Emmanuelle Charpentier and her co-workers were busy studying the defence system used by bacteria to shake off attacking viruses, they knew that this discovery was relevant way beyond bacteria. Nevertheless, they did not expect that their findings could become a game-changing tool for science and medicine so quickly. The system, called CRISPR-Cas, is a sophisticated defence mechanism. When bacteria are attacked by a virus, the system recognises the virus’ foreign DNA and slices it into pieces, destroying the attacker’s genetic information. This is an astounding discovery, but the true breakthrough lies in its application. In our current age of genetics, biologists have been in need of more precise tools for working with DNA – and over the past years since its discovery CRISPR proved to provide exactly this: an easy-to-use, programmable instrument which allows deleting, replacing or otherwise editing DNA at unprecedented precision. “The CRISPR revolution” as Science named it, has found its way into biotech labs all over the world, enabled new solutions and experiments and will hopefully help to find treatments against many serious illnesses. In fact, the scale of this breakthrough cannot be fully understood yet – and the same is true for its ethical consequences and the risks attached to the new possibilities. At Falling Walls, Emmanuelle outlines how basic science led to this discovery and shows up the enormous benefits the new technology can provide – if used responsibly.


We are looking for the Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2021. The global call for nominations closes on 15 June 2021.

Emmanuelle Charpentier

Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology

Emmanuelle Charpentier studied biochemistry and microbiology at the University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris, France where she received her PhD in Microbiology for her research performed at the Pasteur Institute. She then moved to the United States, where she held Research Associate positions at the Rockefeller University, New York University Langone Medical Center and the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine (all in New York, NY) and at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital (in Memphis, TN). Emmanuelle Charpentier returned to Europe to establish her own research group at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories of the University of Vienna in Austria where she habilitated in the field of Microbiology. She was then recruited as an Associate Professor at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS, Swedish Node of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Partnership for Molecular Medicine) at Umeå University. In 2012 Emmanuelle Charpentier was appointed Professor at Hannover Medical School (MHH) and head of the department “Regulation in Infection Biology” at the HZI. In 2013, Emmanuelle was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. In 2015, Emmanuelle was appointed Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and Director of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany. Together with Jennifer Doudna she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.