The 2014 John Kendrew Young Scientist Award recipient was selected on 21 November at the EMBL Alumni Association board meeting. Martin Jinek from the Czech Republic, former Structural and Computational Biology Unit predoc in the Conti lab, was chosen in recognition of the impact of his academic research on technology development in academia and the biotech industry. His collaborative work in the development of RNA-guided gene targeting has helped change the way that genomes are engineered.
What was your contribution to this new gene-targeting technology?
In 2007, the Doudna group at Berkeley, where I did my postdoc, started working on CRISPR systems – defence mechanisms that bacteria use to protect their genomes from ‘invading’ genetic material. We were intrigued by this RNA-based immune system, as no one knew how it worked. I got involved because of my structural biology background, developed at EMBL. We determined some of the first 3D structures of the molecular machines involved. Trying to find my own niche, I chose to work on a protein called Cas9. We showed that this protein cuts specific DNA sequences when guided by an RNA molecule, This laid the foundation for my recent work developing tools to conduct RNA-guided gene targeting in human cells. This CRISPR system makes it easier to make specific changes to DNA – for instance, for gene therapy. This work is a collaboration with the lab of Emmanuelle Charpentier, until recently at Umeå University, a member of the EMBL Nordic Partnership for Molecular Medicine.
This led to the founding of Caribou Biosciences – what role did you play?
The idea came from Rachel Haurwitz, a PhD student in the Doudna group: one of the co-founders and CEO. She wanted to develop and commercialise research tools based on the CRISPR proteins. I was at the right place at the right time: Cas9 presented a clear opportunity for this and I joined as one of the co-founders of the company.
Any advice for recent graduates?
I am a strong believer in mobility in research. It exposes you to new people, ideas and ways of doing things, and helps to keep your eyes open. I left the Czech Republic for a degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, a PhD at EMBL Heidelberg, and a postdoctoral fellowship in California. I have returned to Europe, but I am still at an early stage in my independent career to think about settling.
The Czech Republic is set to join EMBL as a member state. What does this mean to you?
I am thrilled! I hope that this will attract talented Czech PhD students to EMBL and help build connections between labs in the Czech Republic and the rest of Europe.
The John Kendrew Award cash prize will increase to €5,000 effective 2014. “It’s a pleasure to help this award gain prestige and recognition, and it has been rewarding to listen to the very deserving recipients at the ceremonies in the last years,” says Roland Specker, the John Kendrew Award sponsor.