Biodiversity 7 min
Hélène Bergès, a resourceful woman
After joining INRAE in 1998, Hélène Bergès first of all focused on research in plant genetics before taking responsibility in 2003 for creation of the National Centre for Plant Genetic Resources, which rapidly gained a strong international reputation. Hélène Berges has also become a model in her field through her management of the Centre since then, together with its fifteen staff members and twenty or so research projects, attacking the task with infectious enthusiasm and dynamism until July 31, 2019. She received INRAE’s 2012 Engineer Award.
Published on 29 November 2012
The only group in Europe to centralise so many resources for plant genomics.
DNA is Hélène Berges' passion. Having discovered it during her postgraduate studies in biology, she just cannot let go: “understanding the DNA that is the origin of all living beings is absolutely fascinating”. After an Advanced Studies Diploma (DEA) in enzyme engineering, bioconversion and microbiology, Bergès defended a thesis in 1995 on the production of proteins of therapeutic interest by Escherichia coli bacteria, and then joined INRA in Toulouse to work on the mechanisms underlying the molecular dialogue between lucerne and its symbiotic bacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti. This led her to coordinate a European project on the subject.
A resourceful woman
In January 2003, INRA entrusted her with setting up the National Centre for Plant Genetic Resources (CNRGV). To achieve her goals, Hélène Bergès has combined considerable scientific and technological knowledge and unfaltering tenacity: “I had to be convincing enough to persuade fund-providers to release sufficient monies to achieve rapid progress in this work”. She pushed ahead. Starting from a simple road map, in four years she built up a facility that soon became an international benchmark. Containing an immense library of genomic resources and biological materials, the Centre now manages more than 20 million genome fragments from more than 27 wild and cultivated species, such as Arabidopsis, lucerne, sunflower, sugar cane, rapeseed, pimento and maize, etc. “A good example is wheat, a species that has now been fully sequenced, and where we now possess more than a million samples. For tomato, we hold nearly 400,000. These are genome fragments that will serve either to obtain fundamental knowledge on their DNA content, or to characterise genes that code for certain properties (plant yield, gustatory quality, disease resistance, etc.)” explains Hélène Bergès.
A collection of quality
Employing some fifteen people, the Centre now attracts projects funded by the French Government (Grand Emprunt), the French National Research Agency (ANR) or the European Union (a total of some twenty projects), and completes about a hundred service contracts each year. Victim of its own success, the CNRGV is now planning its expansion in 2013. “We are the only group in Europe to centralise in the same place so many resources, skills and technologies for plant genomics. Research teams and the breeding industry put their trust in INRA because of the long-term strength of its system”, considers Bergès.
Increasingly assailed by requests from foreign colleagues for training in the methods developed by the Centre, Hélène Bergès has acquired an international reputation in her field. But this does not prevent her from being involved in the life of the Institute, its Research Conference (Assises de la Recherche) and its system for competitive recruitment and promotion, in the management of INRA's collective tools and in thesis juries: “clearly, all these activities take up a lot of time, but they give me a broader vision of research and its orientations…”
On a daily basis, Hélène Bergès, who is 46 years old, juggles the management of projects, human and financial resources and partnerships. Her considerable interpersonal skills, commitment and strength of conviction have enabled her to attract a motivated and dynamic team. As a strong, clear and direct manager, she is capable of writing the script for all parties.
- Lives with her partner and has two children
- Research Engineer, Research Unit Director
- Training: Master's degree in cell biology, DEA in Enzyme Engineering, Bioconversion and Microbiology, PhD.
- INRAE's 2012 Engineer Award
Since 2019, Hélène Bergès is VP of Research and Development – Science Leadership Team - INARI | Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA).