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Leaders in Innovation

2023 Inductee Philippe Horvath: Enhancing Food Production Worldwide

At the National Inventors Hall of Fame®, we are looking forward to officially welcoming our 2023 Class of Inductees while celebrating 50 years of connecting generations of creators, innovators and entrepreneurs. It is our honor to recognize each member of this year’s inspiring class of inventors, including molecular biologist Philippe Horvath.

Together with fellow 2023 Inductee Rodolphe Barrangou, Horvath applied CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology to create better starter cultures for the dairy industry, improving the world’s food supply while laying the foundation for the burgeoning field of gene editing.

Investigating and Innovating

“I love to say that I grew up with a screwdriver in one hand and a hammer in the other one,” Horvath said in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Born in Colmar, France, he has had a lifelong interest in engaging in hands-on investigation to grow his understanding of how things work.

Much like his father, a toolmaker, Horvath loved tinkering. As a teenager he was particularly interested in working on motorcycles. “Almost every day, I got [my motorcycle’s] motor into pieces in order to improve it a bit, in order to go faster on it,” he said.

Horvath’s drive to investigate and innovate, as well as his appreciation for logic, led him to study cellular and molecular biology. He earned his master’s degree in 1996 and his doctorate in 2000 from the Université Louis Pasteur, which has since been absorbed by the University of Strasbourg.

His career largely has been motivated by a desire to help others. He explained, “I think that it's the idea of being useful, of being able to help others, my colleagues and the company. I feel a kind of satisfaction when I'm able to solve problems. So this is what really motivates me.”


Making Valuable Discoveries

While working at Danisco, an industrial biotechnology company later acquired by DuPont, Horvath and Barrangou studied how bacteria survive to viruses called bacteriophages, which infect and kill bacteria. They wanted to breed bacteria with natural resistance to these viruses, because viral outbreaks can destroy the bacterial starter cultures that are used to produce fermented dairy products like yogurt and cheese. Starter cultures are considered part of a company’s intellectual property, and are vital to its production and profitability.

In 2005, Horvath and Barrangou identified similarities between viral DNA sequences and the spacer sequences in bacterial CRISPR regions. They discovered that bacterial genomes evolved over time, picking up sequences from bacteriophages to which they were previously exposed, and then using those spacers to recognize viruses that would later invade their cells. Further research revealed that bacterial CRISPR spacers created a permanent record of viruses against which the bacteria has mounted defenses.

This discovery of CRISPR-based bacterial immunity to phages first was applied to develop resistance to viral invaders in bacterial cultures. DuPont began commercializing improved commercial starter cultures in 2011, selecting those with CRISPR sequences for increased virus resistance. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have since enjoyed cheese and yogurt with natural CRISPR enhancement.

“I think the work we did on CRISPR was the most important discovery we made,” Horvath said. “I'm involved in many different patents and inventions, but we have a portfolio around CRISPR, and this is the most valuable, I would say, in terms of what biotechnology can provide to the world.”

When asked what the future might hold for CRISPR technology, Horvath replied, “I think the greatest potential for CRISPR is in agriculture. In medicine there will be for sure some brilliant ways of using that to treat some diseases, but it'll always be tricky because it will be personal. It will have to be adapted to each individual. In contrast, in agriculture, the development of crops that will be more resistant to drought, to heat, that have better yields, etc. — that will affect more people in the world. So there is no doubt that the future for now is about crop, plant and animal improvement.”


Meet More Visionary 2023 Inductees

Learn more about the inspiring creators and innovators who make up our latest class of National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees when you visit our website.

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