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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

An Interview with Pascale Cossart

Charles Ebikeme interviews Pascale Cossart of the Institut Pasteur on the occasion of her receipt of the Women in Science Award at FEBS-EMBO 2014.

Pascale CossartOn September 2, Pascale Cossart received the Women in Science Award at the Federation of European Biochemical Societies / EMBO 2014 conference.

On October 23, Cossart and colleagues published “Listeria monocytogenes Dampens the DNA Damage Response” in PLOS Pathogens, in which she describes a toxin that blocks the body’s response to bacterial induced DNA, a crucial step for a productive infection.


Why did you decide to become a scientist? What drew you to the field?

At the beginning I decided to become a scientist because I loved science. I was interested in chemistry. But after two weeks in a chemistry lab I realized that maybe I loved it on paper, but I had the feeling that the big period of chemistry was somehow over. I was in organic chemistry and polymer chemistry, then I took a course — par hasard — of biochemistry, and then I went to my professor and I switched–and that was it. But I never had any other aim than doing research. I remember that my parents were telling me that I could make more money in industry instead of having this little fellowship.

Who have been your standout scientific mentors?

I didn’t have many but I had George Cohen at Pasteur during my PhD. He was an amazing person himself. What was more amazing was that he left me the freedom to pursue what I wanted. Then, I had a supervisor who was very dynamic and pushed for new technologies. I did the first sequence of a gene at the Pasteur Institute, which was a big challenge at the time.

Why is Listeria your favorite organism?

When I started to work on Listeria, my choice was mainly because it was an intracellular pathogen.  I had realized that intracellular pathogens were still really important pathogens. And I had the feeling that working with Listeria was somehow providing me with a tool to visit the cell from the inside–which happened to be true. In addition, I knew of a number of other properties that Listeria  had, which really contributed to the success of my studies.  For example, I knew it was growing sufficiently well so that I would get colonies in a relatively short time.

You published an article about Listeria in the journal PLOS Pathogens on October 23. What is the main finding from that research, and why did you choose to submit to PLOS Pathogens?

The main finding is that Listeria is able to dampen the response to the DNA lesions that it is producing during infection. Dampening this response is essential for a productive infection, demonstrating that the DNA Damage Response is important for a cell to counteract infection.

We choose to publish it in PLOS Pathogens as it is just the right platform for reaching infection biologists.

How have your career and research interests evolved over the years?

They have always been evolving. I have always moved ahead… ten years ago I did not think I would be doing deep RNA biology, but I do a lot now. I have somehow returned to studies I have done in the past, like bacterial regulation, and protein chemistry. A big facet [of what I do now] is post-translational modification in infected hosts.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the work you presented today on Listeria and the new microbiology?

Microbiology is really exploding at the moment. It is having a true Renaissance. Microbiology is using cutting edge technologies–of course genomics, postgenomics, transcriptomics–but also imaging and single cell analysis, microfluidics, nanofluidics, etc.

Another aspect  of the ongoing revolution is that we realize we should not work with microbes like Pasteur did–isolating the microbe and putting them in broth medium. Bacteria in real life are in assemblies and in communities. And not only are they with other bacteria, but they are with phages, viruses, amoeba, all kinds of things. So I think we should have a broader look and try to mimic that situation in the lab, to understand what all these components do. I think in twenty years nobody will study Listeria like I did. We ourselves have started to examine Listeria behavior in the presence of other microorganisms. We recently published a paper [reporting] that we studied the Listeria infection after incubating the mice with lactobacilli and then [examined] the effects on both the Listeria and the [mouse] tissue.

So I think these are some elements of what I call the new microbiology…


Charles Ebikeme is a science journalist with a PhD in Parasitology, who serves as a Science Officer with the International Social Science Council of UNESCO.  He writes frequently on global health, health policy, neglected tropical diseases and infectious diseases for The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Scientific American, and Think Africa Press. He is based in Paris. You can find him on Twitter @CEbikeme.


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