NCSU Gene-Editing Pioneer Wins $100K NAS Prize
North Carolina State University professor and gene editing pioneer Rodolphe Barrangou, Ph.D., has been honored by the National Academy of Sciences with the 2018 $100,000 NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences.
The award, for Barrangou’s discovery of the genetic mechanisms and proteins driving CRISPR-Cas systems, is the latest of several prestigious awards he has received.
The CRISPR-Cas systems, one of the hottest topics in biotechnology, are already stimulating commercialization by both major firms and startups such as Research Triangle Park-based Locus Biosciences, an NCBiotech portfolio company. Locus is tackling the antibiotic resistance problem by developing powerful CRISPR-based “smart bombs” that kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs by irreversibly destroying the bacterial DNA.
The NAS award recognizes research by a mid-career scientist at a U.S. institution who has made an extraordinary contribution to agriculture or to the understanding of the biology of a species fundamentally important to agriculture or food production.
The latest of several major prizes
The NAS Prize is only the latest prestigious award for Barrangou, the Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Scholar in Probiotics Research, University Scholar and associate professor in the NCSU Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences.
He previously won the 2016 Canada Gairdner International award (video) and a fourth of the $500,000 2016 Warren Alpert Foundation Prize. A significant number of winners of both of those awards have gone on to win a Nobel Prize. Barrangou, only in his early 40s, is one of the youngest recipients of these awards.
Barrangou has said in talks at Biotech Center events that the CRISPR system is “giving rise to a technology that is going to make a difference in the world.
“It’s happening already. The Research Triangle is poised to be a leader in this,” he said. “It’s a way for the RTP to take a big role in ag and biotech. There are tremendous opportunities for business.”
In addition to food and agriculture, those include gene therapy and other medical applications.
Barrangou’s groundbreaking research established CRISPR as the adaptive immune system of bacteria, a discovery that promoted the practical use of CRISPR-Cas systems for genome editing. The work has tremendous worldwide applications in food and agriculture, including virus resistance in the widely used yogurt starter culture Streptococcus thermophilus and the potential for translational genome editing in other microbes, crops and livestock.
Started with landmark paper in 2007
Starting with their landmark paper in 2007, Barrangou and his collaborators showed that bacteria capture and integrate new DNA sequences called “spacers” into a feature of their genome called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs).
The CRISPRs, they discovered, work together with cas (CRISPR-associated) genes to provide specific resistance and adaptive immunity against viruses.
The technology, Barrangou said in a talk at the 8th annual NU Tech Roundtable last fall, “allows you to selectively, specifically, efficiently and affordably act as a molecular scalpel” to edit the genome.
Barrangou has remained at the forefront of CRISPR-related research. He led the first major practical application of these discoveries, an effort to guide adaptive virus immunity in yogurt and cheese starter cultures and helped solve an industrial problem that affects millions of gallons of milk around the world every day. Barrangou also showed that adaptive immunity can also target plasmids and functions by cleaving DNA.
Through all of this, he has also led the growth of this field through teaching, lecturing, serving on scientific advisory boards and co-organizing many of the annual CRISPR biology meetings that arose immediately following the publication of his groundbreaking paper. Recent efforts include the use of CRISPR as antimicrobials and the launch of Locus Biosciences, in collaboration with the NCSU Office of Technology Commercialization and New Ventures.