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Laureate of the 2007 Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences


Against viruses, silence is golden

Olivier Voinnet’s discoveries on RNA silencing as a mechanism for immunity against viruses paved the way for a brand new approach of Molecular Biology and Virology.


To battle viral infections, the best weapon a cell holds is microRNA - small RNA molecules that target viral RNA, stick to it by sequence complementarity and launch a destruction signal through double-stranded RNA recognition. That destruction mechanism is called RNA silencing and has been found to fight against intracellular parasites in both plants and animals.

Olivier Voinnet has shown that the process is not cell-individual. Awarded the Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences as recognition for his discoveries in Plant Biology, he has revealed a mechanism for immunity against viruses that goes well beyond Botanics. Indeed, the defensive microRNA he has found to be capable of propagation from one Plant cell to the next upon localized viral infection exist in Mammals as well. In addition, those microRNA play a pivotal role in protection against cancer and other serious diseases. Olivier Voinnet also paid attention to the viruses’ response to RNA silencing and discovered that they are able to protect themselves against it by producing inhibitory proteins.

The Prize has been crucial for keeping Lionel Navarro and Peter Brodersen at work in Dr. Voinnet’s laboratory. Their work as post-doctoral fellows led to the publication of 12 scientific articles of the highest quality.


The scientific community was still mistaking gene silencing for an artifact when Olivier Voinnet bet his career on it. Only a master’s student, he specialized in Molecular Biology and Plant Pathology. His ambition: to decipher one day the bizarre gene extinctions that manifested themselves during experiments on genetically engineered plants.

His dream was soon fulfilled, for his PhD work contributed greatly to the understanding of the role of gene silencing. In David Baulcombe’s laboratory, he discovered that sequence-specific signals were capable of traveling throughout a whole plant in order to turn off target genes from one cell to the next. He established then the notion that gene silencing is used to immunize naïve cells against a viral infection that is already present in the organism. He also showed that most viruses try to suppress the silencing response.

A CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) senior researcher, Olivier Voinnet leads two teams simultaneously. One is in Strasbourg, France, the other in Zürich, Switzerland. Both are dauntless in exploring uncharted scientific territories.

  • 1996 - 2001PhD, supervised by David Baulcombe, Sainsbury Laboratory, John Innes Centre, Norwich, United Kingdom
  • 2002Young Scientist of the year Prize, Science magazine
  • 2004CNRS Bronze Medal
  • 2005Great Prize for Education and Research, Schlumberger Foundation
  • 2005“Victor Noury, Thorlet, Henri Becquerel, Jules et Augusta Lazare” Prize, French National Academy of Sciences
  • 2006Gold Medal, French National Academy of Agriculture
  • 2007Permanent EMBO Membership (European Molecular Biology Organization)
  • 2007CNRS Silver Medal
  • 2007Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences, Bettencourt Schueller Foundation
  • 2009EMBO Gold Medal
  • 2009Great Scientific Prize, Louis D. Foundation, Institut de France