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Weissenbach among the best geneticists worldwide.
In fifteen years, his work helped make leaps knowledge of genomes and have
revolutionized human genetics. A level of excellence that is to see this
month put the gold medal of the CNRS.
He is the "Vasco de Gama of science", said of him late Jean Bernard, an eminent French physician. But the "earth", although vast and unknown microscopic's helped discover Weissenbach is actually very close: it is 3.5 billion "letters" of the human genetic code. The "book of life" in short. But researcher of 62 years, director of the National Center Genoscope-sequencing (CEA) in Evry, is not a fan of this type of formulas emphatic. Measured, discreet, he nevertheless agreed to pay to play media that he been in recent weeks. And for good reason: he has just received the gold medal of the CNRS. "With more than 500 publications in international journals, he is one of two or three world's best researchers in their discipline," commented on this Migus Arnold, Director General of CNRS. In his office where he orchestrates Genoscope, Weissenbach back on his career and remembers his first steps in science.
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Very young, in the backroom of his pharmacist father, he breathes bottles, sniffing powders, before addressing later in the manufacture of ointments and other compounding. Therefore no hesitation after high school: it comes into pharmacy school. But the world of research seems much more exciting ... Especially in the early 1970s because molecular biology is coming off a fantastic boom following the discovery of the structure of DNA1, molecule constituting the chromosomes and Support genetic information. The aspiring pharmacist therefore follows a parallel course in biochemistry. After his PhD and postdoctoral work at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, he went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris. "From 1982, I worked on the human sex chromosomes," he recalls. Four years later, he made the first map of the Y chromosome, where he locates the region that contains the gène2 responsible for sex determination. It also demonstrates for the first time in humans, during the production of sex cells, takes place a échange3 DNA between chromosomes X and Y. This is the time of the first success. But this dream to address all of our genetic material: the human genome. And he has an idea ...
"I wanted to use markers, microsatellites4, which enable it to pinpoint along the genome and to establish a high-resolution map," said the winner. Some of the relevance of his ideas, Daniel Cohen5 and Jean Dausset, Centre for the Study of Human Polymorphism (CEPH), a laboratory are available. Promising, these studies are then funded by the French Association against Myopathies (AFM), and in 1992, Jean Weissenbach gets a first genetic map published by the prestigious journal Nature. "The success was far greater than I anticipated," he says. Soon, scientists around the world dig into effect this card - improved in 1994 and 1996 - and locate it with many genes responsible for hereditary diseases in a few months! The impact is considerable. Weissenbach, receiving in 1994 the CNRS silver medal for all his work on the genome, becomes one of the most cited researchers in the world in the scientific literature and, for several years.
Spell the genome
The researcher then answers this when France called on him in 1996. It is now to participate in what will be called "Project Apollo biology" reading all the "letters" of human DNA. A dream back to the agenda since the genetic map provided landmarks to be found in this inextricable jungle where only 2% of "letters" correspond to genes! To participate in international public consortium of the "Human Genome Project" France creates Genoscope (see box below cons) and Jean Weissenbach was appointed as its head. Bet won his team, responsible for chromosome 14, performs its task handily, and the complete sequence of "letters" was published in 2003. It was a mammoth task. And a real struggle for freedom and science. Because "the American Craig Venter at the same time led a private project but wanted to sell the same access to data," remembers medalist. "Such privatization seemed extremely dangerous. Only large companies had access to private: it would have been a significant slowdown in science. "Meanwhile, in 2000, the researcher was also the origin of the first reliable estimate of the number of our genes: 30 0006 100 000 instead of the previously assumed. This is less than Paramecium, a unicellular microorganism, high of 40 000 genes. And less than 37 000 of a grain of rice!
"Since then, I turned the page of human genetics," says medalist. Discoveries are still happening, but in other areas. Genoscope carries particular, alone or in partnership, the sequencing of the genomes of Anopheles (mosquito vector of malaria), Paramecium, rice and grapes, a matter of choice for the wine lover. But man needs new challenges. Independent, visionary and pragmatic, he has recently refocused its research organizations unjustly neglected: bacteria. These "bugs" that degrade the waste in nature are however essential to the ecology of the planet. Know them better, gene by gene, could lead to all kinds of applications, especially in the service of the environment, especially to make the cleaner chemistry or even to destroy pollutants. "Eschewing the usual design, I think the life sciences can bring a lot of chemistry," says the researcher. "I hope the prestige associated with the gold medal of the CNRS will help me to work in this direction and to be emulated. "It will be understood, this theme at heart the winner. And he hopes to shine again before bowing out to science.