Pascal Mayer, a visionary reader of DNA

Half a smile on his face, he appears on the screen. Not familiar with the limelight, obviously, but delighted. A floating nothing, too, as if he still hesitated to believe it. After so many years spent in the shadows, he is suddenly propelled onto the front of the stage, honored by a prestigious international award, but belated.

On September 9, Frenchman Pascal Mayer, “Biophysicist at heart”, in his words, received, along with two Britons, biochemist Shankar Balasubramanian and biophysicist David Klenerman, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Created in 2012 by the founders of Facebook, Google and 23andMe, this prize for “capital advancement in life sciences”, which is considered to be an antechamber of the Nobel, is also one of the best endowed. Each group of laureates thus receives $ 3 million, approximately three times more than for a Nobel.

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This trio was distinguished for “An invention that revolutionized all of biology, medicine and, beyond that, our societies: in short, massively parallel sequencing of DNA, also known as ‘new generation sequencing'”, enthuses Raphaël Rodriguez, CNRS research director in cancer chemistry at the Institut Curie (Paris), and close associate of Shankar Balasubramanian. This disruptive technology “Is more important, in my opinion, than the Internet or the genome editing tool, Crispr-Cas9”, the researcher still marvels, recalling that before learning to write one must know how to read.

Why is this way of reading DNA so innovative? Using very little biological material, it enables ultra-fast, economical, reliable and precise deciphering of genomes. “Thanks to this tool, we better understand life, the evolution of species, the environment that surrounds us, continues Raphaël Rodriguez. We can very quickly identify the mutations involved in cancers and genetic diseases, develop personalized medicines, solve cold cases… As the Covid-19 pandemic swept in, it was he, always, who allowed us to identify and sequence the virus and the new variants. “

A revolutionary tool

For Pascal Mayer, this medal was far from being acquired. In May, only the British duo had received, for this “revolutionary” tool, the Millennium Technology Award 2020 from the Finnish Academy of Technology. The Frenchman had been forgotten. “When I said that I was one of the inventors of this technology, nobody believed me! “, he confides. Lucid but not bitter, now that he’s finally recognized, at the age of 58.

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