Professor Edith Heard was born in London. She was introduced to biology while taking the Natural Sciences Tripos for her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Cambridge in the 1980’s. Inspired by her teachers at the time, she switched her focus from physics to biology and graduated in Genetics. Edith then went on to obtain her PhD from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (later Cancer Research UK) at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in London. Thereafter, she spent nine years at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a permanent researcher, before undertaking a one-year sabbatical at Cold Spring Harbor in the USA. In 2001, she set up her own group at the Institut Curie and in 2010 became Director of the Institute’s Genetics and Developmental Biology Unit. Edith was appointed as a Professor of the Collège de France in 2012, holding the Chair of Epigenetics and Cellular Memory. As part of her professorship, Edith continues to give an annual series of public lectures at the Collège de France, choosing a different scientific theme each year. She is also co-chair of the French national programme PAUSE which helps to temporarily host scientists living in geopolitical crisis zones. In January 2019, Edith started as Director General of EMBL.
Throughout her career, Edith’s research has been at the intersection of many of the scientific topics researched at EMBL. During her PhD, she worked on understanding the cell mechanisms underlying the process of gene amplification which sometimes occurs in tumour cells. As a postdoctoral fellow and group leader, her attention shifted to the epigenetic process of X-chromosome inactivation (XCI), whereby one of a female’s two X chromosomes is silenced during development. Edith showed that the expression of the key non-coding RNA that triggers XCI, Xist, is dependent on large sections of regulatory DNA. This research led her to develop novel single cell approaches and imaging techniques. Following this, Edith’s group was among the first to show that in the early stages of embryogenesis, XCI is remarkably dynamic, thereby illustrating the stability and plasticity of epigenetic processes. Her group also found major differences in XCI in embryos of different mammalian species, highlighting the importance of researching fundamental biological mechanisms within the context of evolution. Edith’s group, in collaboration with Job Dekker, was also one of the first to describe topologically associating domains (TADs) – a new principle of chromosome folding whereby regions of DNA preferentially interact with each other to partition the genome into functionally distinct domains. Edith’s lab showed that this organisation is crucial for the initiation of XCI, as well as being intimately linked to gene expression dynamics. The discovery of TADs has since stimulated a great deal of research in the field of chromosome organisation. Edith’s current research focuses on understanding how chromatin and chromosome organisation participate in gene regulation. More information can be found at her group page.
The discoveries made by Edith and her laboratory have been recognised by many prizes, most recently the Inserm Grand Prix, the European Society for Human Genetics Award and the Prix René et Andrée Duquesne of la Ligue contre le cancer in 2017. Edith was also awarded numerous other awards including the CNRS Silver Medal, the Prix de la Fondation Allianz, the Science Heirloom for Women in Science, the Grand Prix de la FRM, the Prix Jean Hamburger de la Ville de Paris, the “Otto Mangold” prize for the German Society for Developmental Biology, and the Fondation Schlumberger Award for Education and Research. Edith is an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an EMBO member.
Edith has participated in numerous scientific boards, including the Strategic Research Advisory Committee for the French government, the EMBO Members Committee and the Royal Society CS7 Fellows Committee. Edith is currently a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the CNRS (France), the BRIC (Copenhagen, Denmark), the IMBB (Crete, Greece) and the Crick Institute (London, UK).