A decade after he helped to discover a bacterial defence mechanism that was later transformed into an international breakthrough technology, a Laval University microbiologist is enjoying some recognition from Canada.
At a ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday evening, Sylvain Moineau was presented with the John C. Polanyi Award by the federal science-funding agency NSERC. The award honours research done in Canada that has led to an outstanding advance.
Dr. Moineau is one of several scientists who played a key role in describing the system known as CRISPR (pronounced "crisper"), which bacterial cells use to cut up the DNA of invading viruses, and a co-author on pivotal papers about the system between 2007 and 2011.
Those discoveries were swiftly taken up by molecular biologists who developed them into a high-precision gene splicer that stands to revolutionize large swaths of medicine and agriculture and has opened the door to unprecedented tinkering with the human genome.
"There was a lot of collaboration going on at the beginning and I think this has helped the field progress very fast," said Dr. Moineau, whose work with the dairy industry unexpectedly put him in the ideal place to bring the power of CRISPR to light.
A number of those collaborators have gone on to win major accolades, including Canada's prestigious Gairdner Award in 2016. Some are predicted to eventually take home a Nobel Prize. In contrast, Dr. Moineau's role in the saga has so far garnered much less limelight.
"I am delighted that Sylvain is being recognized with the Polanyi award, said Rodolphe Barrangou, an associate professor at North Carolina State University and one of last year's Gairdner winners. "He's one of the few people who was on board at the early stage and he deserves credit for his contributions to the CRISPR field."
Dr. Moineau, 51, grew up in Quebec City and traces his interest in science to the first time he looked into a microscope while in high school. His fascination ignited, he studied microbiology at Laval where he became interested in viruses, among the smallest biological entities known.
While still at Laval, he went on to graduate work in food science and began to focus on phage, a type of virus that infects bacteria. As part of his research, he spent 18 months at North Carolina State where he overlapped with others who would become key players in the CRISPR story, including Dr. Barrangou and Dennis Romero, now with DuPont Nutrition & Health. After completing his PhD, Dr. Moineau went to work for a Florida-based division of Unilever, the multinational company.
A chance to return to Laval as a faculty member brought him home in 1996. One of the factors in the decision was personal, Dr. Moineau said. The death of his younger brother years before due to childhood leukemia had left him an only child and he wanted to be closer to his parents.
At Laval, Dr. Moineau maintained his ties with industry. In 1999, he was contacted by Dr. Romero with a proposal to study phages that attack bacteria important for the production of yogurt and cheese.
The work carried on until 2005, when Dr. Moineau began noticing that some bacteria were surviving their encounters with phage in a way that he could not explain. He described the result to his industrial collaborators, not realizing that they were looking into the same thing. By November of that year, Dr. Romero came to visit Laval and held a conference call with a small team of scientists to let Dr. Moineau in on the emerging mystery.
"We had all the right parts and pieces," said Dr. Romero, noting that Dr. Moineau's expertise with phage and his facilities at Laval offered just what was needed to sort out the clues.
The next few years were a whirlwind of activity during which Dr. Moineau and his team at Laval helped show how bacteria incorporate viral DNA into their genomes to use as a reference for fighting future infections. He was also instrumental in discovering the importance of a genetic sequence known as PAM, which offers a handhold where the bacteria-generated CRISPR protein can grab on to a strand of viral DNA. If the DNA is recognized as harmful, the protein closes on it like a pair of molecular scissors, thereby disabling the virus. The identical principle would later be used to create a search-and-cut tool for the DNA of virtually any known organism, including humans.
Dr. Moineau said he could scarcely imagine then how far CRISPR would go and in how many directions. "We're doing things we never thought possible only five years ago. It's a really fun time right now," he said.
Among the most satisfying developments for him personally, he added, has been turning a version of his original 2007 experiment that revealed the biological role of CRISPR into a lab exercise for third- and fourth-year students at Laval. "The students are loving it, because they see the potential," he said.