An Open and International Lab On the Cutting Edge of Virology


It’s the eve of the 2015 Sanofi – Institut Pasteur Awards and Dr. Marco Vignuzzi has just finished his in-depth presentation on his work on predicting viral mutations in the Chikungunya virus. Despite the technical level of his talk, the group of journalists and bloggers assembled for the occasion have been following intently.


Now it’s time to see for ourselves the lab where Dr. Vignuzzi and his team have made their breakthroughs.


Scientists from across the globe


The visit takes place in Paris’ Institut Pasteur, a private, non-profit foundation dedicated to treating and preventing disease. Some 1 500 scientists hailing from all over the world work in fields ranging from microbiology and infectious disease to neuroscience, genetics and developmental biology.


The institute has a network of 32 institutes based in 25 countries on almost every continent and an operating budget of just over €280 million. It counts 130 research units and has produced 10 Nobel laureates over the years.


The group crosses a large atrium in the sleek glass and steel structure, making its way to the top floor where Dr. Vignuzzi, the 2015 laureate of the Sanofi – Institut Pasteur Junior Award in tropical and neglected diseases, has had his lab since 2008.


As is to be expected, the lab is behind glass walls and doors, seeming to physically represent the transparency the scientists seek to impose on the mysteries of the natural world.


Working at his lab are two technicians, three or four post-doctorate students and two or three doctoral students, plus visiting professors and researchers.



At the crossroads of biology and mathematics


Leading the way, Dr. Vignuzzi introduces the group to staff and explains which room serves what purpose. He points to a room where the Coxsackie virus is studied, mentioning that the virus can cause myocarditis, an inflammation of a muscle in the heart wall. He reassures us quickly though, saying most of us have already contracted the virus in our youth in the form of hand, foot and mouth disease.  


Dr. Vignuzzi then takes the group to a room containing several compact boxy machines whirring away: high-throughput sequencers, which effectively read genetic code. He explains his lab was one of the first to make use of this latest generation of devices to sequence RNA. “In only nine hours it churns out more than one billion sequences,” he adds. “They’re 100 times faster than the first machines that came out in 2009.”  


He continues, telling the group that the difficulty is not sequencing the code, but rather processing the massive amount of data, which biologists were not ready for when they first came out. Today, they work with bioinformaticists and, in particular, mathematicians. “They don’t see viruses but rather vectors that move in a certain area with respect to their sequence,” he says.



“The challenge is to identify which sequences are emerging and becoming important and can be identified as a mutation.”  


Throughout our visit we encounter a number of researchers and post-doctorate students hard at work. “I spent a number of years in California,” Dr. Vignuzzi explains.


“So I run my lab the Californian way: there aren’t really set hours. But because the viruses have a 12-hour cycle, even if we leave the lab to go workout or something, we have to be back at the end of the cycle.”    


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