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Leaders in Innovation

2023 Inductee Rodolphe Barrangou: Blazing a Trail in CRISPR Technology

As the National Inventors Hall of Fame® celebrates our 50th year of inspiration, innovation and impact, we are thrilled to welcome our 2023 class of Hall of Fame Inductees. Among the world-changing inventors we are proud to induct this year is molecular biologist Rodolphe Barrangou, whose work has improved food production and played a key role in establishing the growing CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) field.

An Appetite for Science

In an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Barrangou discussed his childhood in the suburbs of Paris, saying, “I was always curious. I was curious about how the world works and how things function, and the mystery of the unknown. I [had] an appetite for science.”

When asked how he describes himself, Barrangou was quick to answer, “I am an adventurer. I like to go and blaze trails and want to discover and invent new things.”

Barrangou received his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the René Descartes University in 1996 and a master’s degree in biological engineering from Université de Technologie de Compiègne in 2000. He earned both a master’s degree in food science and a doctorate in genomics from North Carolina State University in 2004, as well as his MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011.


An Innovative Journey

In the early 2000s, Barrangou and fellow National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee Philippe Horvath began to research the genetic underpinnings of starter cultures, or beneficial bacteria used to produce fermented dairy foods. Starter cultures are considered part of a company’s intellectual property, and are vital to its production and profitability. At Danisco, an industrial biotechnology company acquired first by DuPont and then by International Flavors & Fragrances, Barrangou and Horvath sequenced the DNA of viruses called bacteriophages, and while working to breed bacteria with natural resistance to these viruses, they identified similarities between viral DNA sequences and the spacer sequences in bacterial CRISPR regions in 2005.

Barrangou and Horvath discovered that bacterial genomes evolve over time. They pick up sequences from bacteriophages to which they were exposed, and then use these spacers to recognize viruses that later invade their cells, and provide immunity. Further research showed that bacterial CRISPR spacers created a permanent record of viruses against which the bacteria has mounted defenses, passing these genetic vaccination events along to subsequent generations. They also showed that by altering CRISPR sequences, scientists can provide, withdraw or switch resistance against phages.

The pair’s work was a catalyst for the exploration of CRISPR systems, leading to the development of the CRISPR-Cas toolkit for targeted DNA edits and forming the foundation for technology applied in areas including genome editing, plant breeding, and antibacterial and antimicrobial production.

“I knew it was going to change the world of CRISPR; I just didn't know how much,” Barrangou said. “That was a great scientific journey.”

DuPont began screening its commercial starter cultures in 2011, selecting those with CRISPR sequences for increased virus resistance. Since then, hundreds of millions worldwide have enjoyed cheese and yogurt with CRISPR enhancement.

“If you had one bite of yogurt, one bite of cheese, one nacho, one pizza, one cheeseburger, pretty much anywhere on planet Earth in the last decade, it’s guaranteed you've consumed a product that was fermented using a CRISPR-enhanced culture that came out of the DuPont lab,” Barrangou said. “Think about how many billions of people have been eating fermented product that they've enjoyed, that they've formulated in their own kitchen or even at a restaurant. They've been enjoying those products thanks to CRISPR technology.”

Looking to the future, Barrangou is currently involved in applying CRISPR technology to support more sustainable forestry through breeding trees that are more sustainable and better at capturing carbon. Barrangou shared, “That kind of application has such ramifications that you could really change the world for the 8 billion people that are on planet Earth now, and as a matter of fact, the next 10 billion people that will be born in the foreseeable future, for which the lifespan of those trees will make an impact.”


Meet More Inspiring 2023 Inductees

To learn more about the visionary creators and innovators who make up our latest class of Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.

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