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Life sciences and the CEA: the initial bond

Published on 16 October 2015

“To study the proper measures to assure the protection of people and property against the destructive effects of atomic energy” is one of the missions attributed to the newly founded ‘Commissariat à l’énergie atomique’ in 1945, in the order validating its creation. Radiation protection has therefore been developed at the CEA since its origin, as well as radiobiology and radiotoxicology, in order to understand the effects of radiation on living organisms. And yet, the CEA is not limited uniquely to exploring this aspect of life sciences. Why is this so?

The first High Commissioner for atomic energy, appointed in 1946, was none other than Frédéric Joliot, who already sensed the potential for artificial radioactivity in the life sciences. In 1935 he wrote that we must “anticipate the use of these radioactive elements as indicators to study the behavior of their inactive isotopes in certain chemical reactions or in biological phenomena”. He naturally considered that the life sciences, in their ensemble, have their place at the CEA and he promoted the use of radioactive isotopes by its researchers. In 1943, he also personally participated in the realization of the first labeled molecule (thyroxin, a thyroid hormone) in France. The first medical biologist of the CEA, François Morel (recruited in 1948), used labeled molecules, an extraordinary tool, to understand kidney physiology. In the 1950s, CEA nuclear reactors such as Zoé were used to produce radioisotopes of the main components of living matter: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen.
The CEA scientific team in 1946. Seated from left to right: Pierre Auger, Irène Curie, Frédéric Joliot, Francis Perrin, Lew Kowarski.  Standing from left to right: Betrand Goldschmidt,  Pierre Bicquard, Léon Denivelle, Jean Langevin.
©CEA/Otto et Piriou


“In biology, (…) the indicator method, using synthetic radioelements, will allow studying more easily the problem of locating and eliminating various elements introduced into living organisms (and) will likely find a practical application in medicine.”

Excerpt from the Nobel conference by Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie, given in Stockholm on December 12, 1935.


From radioisotopes to genetics

Tomato plants obtained from irradiated
seeds, for observing mutations, 1956.
©CEA/Documentation Service

​Artificial radioactivity allows spectacular advances in our understanding of life, and has revolutionized biology of the twentieth century. Thanks to this technique, researchers can study the synthesis of a molecule in a cell, follow its fate in tissue sections, determine its function, and see how cells communicate with each other through chemical messages. Laboratories at the CEA have actively participated in this revolution and have progressively extended their areas of expertise. In 1953 the High Commissioner Francis Perrin created the biology service, headed by Jean Coursaget and bringing together researchers in biochemistry, biophysics, plant biology, physiology and nuclear medicine. Furthermore, when the interest of biologists in the 1960s focused on determining the genetic code, the CEA mobilized to provide labeled amino acids, of an exceptional quality and indispensable to advancing research, to laboratories worldwide. And in plan de tabac c14-1956.jpg1963, the CEA implemented a radioagronomy service at its new center in Cadarache, to study the exchange of chemical elements between plants and their environment. Several years later, techniques for food sterilization by ionizing radiation exposure were developed there.


Injection of carbon dioxide labeled with
carbon-14 in a tobacco plant, March 1956.©CEA

Physics in support of biology

​The CEA does not only bring its expertise in producing labeled molecules to biology. It also benefits greatly from a technical environment that is almost unrivaled.

Since 1956, physicists and biologists at the CEA have partnered to develop techniques for thyroid scintigraphy, with such a potential for medical applications that Jean Coursaget created the Service Hospitalier Frédéric Joliot (SHFJ) in 1958, within the hospital of Orsay. In this service, biologists, physicians, physicists and, later, computer scientists have shaped the foundations of modern medical imaging.

Very early in the history of the CEA, biologists developed the use of X-ray and neutron beams, with support from their physicist and chemist colleagues, to explore molecular structures (particularly of proteins). Whether in Saclay or Grenoble, they have participated in the advancement of understanding structure-function relationships. Thanks to its physicists interested in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), the CEA found itself at the forefront for developing applications in molecular chemistry, structural biology and medical imaging in the 1970s, when this technique was gaining momentum (with the arrival of superconducting magnets and computers).

“Time-of-flight” positron camera, Service Hospitalier Frédéric Joliot, March 1983.
©CEA/ Pierre Jahan

Desired since the creation of the CEA, reinforced by its rapid spread and driven by collaborations between biologists and researchers from other disciplines, life sciences at the CEA have gradually structured themselves. This culminated with the creation in 1990 of the Division of Life Sciences (DSV), comprising seven institutes. Since 2005, the DSV has managed the CEA at Fontenay-aux-Roses, where the dismantling of old nuclear facilities has gradually given way to facilities in biology (especially health). In 2007, the two national platforms in sequencing (Genoscope) and genotyping (CNG) were attached to the CEA, becoming the eighth institute of the DSV: the Genomics Institute. In early 2010, the government redefined the missions of the CEA, renaming it the “Commission for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies”. The DSV thus made the strategic decision to strengthen its teams working on alternative energy, namely biocatalysis and biohydrogen production, third generation biofuels, and research on energy-efficient processes.

Today, the DSV is one of five operational units of the CEA. The life sciences are steeped in its culture of industry, technology and innovation, and benefit from a wealth of exchanges with the other centers (the Divisions of Nuclear Energy, Material Sciences, Military Applications, and Technological Research).

Key dates in biology at the CEA


Creation of the Commission for Atomic Energy.


Installation of the first biology laboratories at the Fontenay-aux-Roses center. François Morel, first "medical biologist" of the CEA, works on a "functional body imaging".


Francis Perrin, High Commissioner, creates the biology service under the direction of Jean Coursaget.


Biologists establish themselves at the Saclay center.


Creation at Orsay of the Service Hospitalier Frédéric Joliot (SHFJ), devoted to nuclear medicine.


Installation of biochemistry and physiology laboratories at the Grenoble center.


The biology service becomes a department.


The beginning of radioagronomy at the Cadarache center.


Creation of the Division of Life Sciences, with 7 institutes.


The Fontenay-aux-Roses center is attached to the DSV.


Attachment to the CEA of two national platforms for genomics research: the National Sequencing Center (Genoscope) and the National Genotyping Center (CNG). They form the 8th institute of the DSV, the Genomics Institute (IG).