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Hervé Vaucheret

On 10 June 2009, the Institut de France awarded its Fondation Louis D. Grand Prix Scientifique to Hervé Vaucheret, director of research at the Cell Biology Laboratory of INRA-Versailles for his work on the regulation of gene expression by small RNAs. A curious, persistent, hard-working non-conformist, Vaucheret embodies certain qualities that make a good researcher.

Hervé Vaucheret. © INRA
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Emily Divinagracia
Updated on 06/19/2017
Published on 06/16/2009
Keywords: plants - biology

He first discovered biology and biochemistry as an undergraduate student in life sciences. After an initial internship at the Pasteur Institute, in Jean-Renaud Garel's laboratory studying the folding of a bacterial enzyme, Vaucheret decided to change gears, focusing on molecular genetics as applied to plants: "At the time, plant biology was biology's poor cousin and lumped together with botany. Scientists tended to believe it yielded few possibilities for cutting-edge research. Meanwhile, I thought of it as an emerging, highly-promising field." Although it went against the grain, his interest soon encountered the right person. "One of the big names in yeast research, Bernard Dujon, taught molecular genetics at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie. He advised me to get in touch with Michel Caboche." No sooner said than done, and Hervé worked on his thesis while at the INRA-Versailles Cell Biology Laboratory, studying the structure and function of nitrate reductase genes. Bernard Dujon's instincts were right. "I learned scientific rigour from Jean-Renaud Garel. Michel Caboche taught me the importance of methodology transfer from one organism to another, and I acquired a taste for effort."

A startling discovery

Hervé Vaucheret became an INRA researcher in 1989, after he obtained his doctorate in cell and molecular genetics. He wanted to pursue the study of certain surprising phenomena observed during his thesis work: "While studying the regulation of nitrate reductase RNA messengers, I discovered almost by chance that some of the nitrate reductace transgenes that we used to increase nitrogen assimilation capacity were not expressed, and could even inactivate their endogenous gene homologues. This then-unknown phenomenon really awakened my curiosity! Since I had some room for manoeuvre, as soon as there was enough data to suggest that there was a real underlying scientific problem, I spoke to Jean-Pierre Bourgin, the director of the Cell Biology Laboratory, offering to pursue the research on my own, and he lent me his support."

A team for small RNA research

Hervé Vaucheret and six other European laboratories are working together to obtain support and resources, "and to promote this research area", he explained. During his research, he noticed that transgenes could also spread in the plant genome even without gene homologues. By subjecting the "silenecd" plants to mutagenesis, he identified mutants that re-expressed the transgene and discovered that they are hypersensitive to infection by certain viruses. These results showed that silencing was a natural mechanism of viral defense, and that it could target certain transgenes due to the type of RNA they produced. Vaucheret's team then identified the plant genes in these mutants, and constructed models explaining the molecular mechanism of silencing.

Part and parcel of a plant's normal function

Since then, Vaucheret's team has been devoting its efforts to understanding molecular mechanisms and their natural roles in plants: "After twenty years of research on silencing, we still haven't fully understood how it works. We especially don't want to isolate this phenomenon as a rejection of transgenes but see how it fits in the plant's normal function, as a manifestation of self-defense. A transgene or virus is seen as a foreign body that was introduced in the plant. How does the plant recognise and destroy this 'non-me'? This is a fundamental question, because it would be useless to improve a plant's defenses to the detriment of its endogenous regulation."

Recognition at hand

So how does Vaucheret feel about the 2009 Institut de France award, which he received jointly with CNRS research director Olivier Voinnet? "Very gratified, of course," he says, "but it really recognises persistence more than it recognises the individual. That could serve as an example for the young: be interested in things you don't understand, and don't be afraid to start research from scratch!" The recognition by his peers has also had other effects. Now that he's viewed as an "expert" in the field, Hervé Vaucheret finds himself with more work than ever! But his ability to "plow through work" hasn't been diminished, and he still finds time for his non-scientific personal activities: culture, especially music and literature, but above all travelling throughout France and around the world, as part of work or on holiday. "I always want to have time to see how the world works elsewhere," he concluded.

Mini-CV

  • 46 years old
  • director of research in plant biology
  • Masters in Biochemistry and Ph.D in Cell and Molecular Genetics, Université Pierre et Marie Curie

Awards and distinctions

  • Grand Prix Jaffé 2003, Académie des Sciences
  • Prix Eugénie de Rosemont 2004, Chancellerie des Universités de Paris
  • Silver Medallist 2005, CNRS
  • Grand Prix Scientifique 2009, Fondation Louis D., Institut de France
  • Permanent member of the EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization)