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Pioneering bioinformatician receives prize for sharing his scientific tools

The world is currently awash with data. Within science, the quantity of data on genome sequencing and health is virtually inexhaustible. However, harnessing these data requires advanced analytical tools. For more than 30 years, bioinformatician Peer Bork has developed and shared analysis tools that can help solve problems related to health, the environment and climate. For this he is receiving the 2021 Novozymes Prize.

Molecular data in life sciences bring huge opportunities for deeper understanding of life, but they need to be digested, organized and analysed in order to be utilized by researchers worldwide. And the quantity of molecular life science data is increasing exponentially since their inception many years ago, some doubling in less than 2 years.

With STRING, STITCH, SMART, eggNOG and iTOL, Peer Bork and colleagues have developed tools for researchers, so they can now more easily analyse the many data.

“With databases and tools, we try to create an opportunity to capture everything that emerged from around the world about how genes function, how they are phylogenetically related and how proteins or chemicals interact in and between various organisms. Progress was slow in the beginning, but today we have a huge valuable network of bioinformatics resources that can help researchers and companies worldwide to investigate their theories on diseases, the environment and other global challenges,” explains Peer Bork, Director of the Heidelberg site of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Germany.

With innovative approaches and resources in a number of subfields of biology, Peer Bork has tremendously accelerated the utilization of these modern data for knowledge generation and for biotechnological applications.

In recognition of the outstanding research he has undertaken during his entire research career, the 2021 Novozymes Prize is being awarded to Peer Bork.

“Peer Bork is receiving the 2021 Novozymes Prize for developing groundbreaking, publicly available and integrative bioinformatic tools. By combining creativity and talent, Peer Bork has developed truly original tools, databases and web servers to collect and analyse the vast quantity of biological data now available with new technologies. His methods have since been used by hundreds of thousands of academic and industrial researchers for countless applications,” says Bernard Henrissat, Chair of the Committee on the Novozymes Prize, Research Director Emeritus at Aix-Marseille University, France and Professor at the Technical University of Denmark.

The Prize is awarded to recognize outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit the development of biotechnological science for innovative solutions. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 5 million and is awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Easy and highly accurate
Peer Bork attended a high school specializing in mathematics in Berlin, received his biochemical education in Leipzig in the 1980s in the former German Democratic Republic. Subsequently he specialized in bioinformatics at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch, since he was fascinated already early in his career about learning to manage the increasing quantity of biological data in order to utilize them for biological discoveries.

“I soon realized that someone needed to systematize the many data and develop tools to analyse them and especially share them, so that researchers across disciplines and countries could work together to understand the molecular machinery of organisms,” explains Peer Bork.

He started to successfully identify and catalogue protein domains, but soon the sequences of entire genomes became available, which required new analysis methods. A major scientific breakthrough came at the start of the new millennium, when Peer Bork played an important role as an analyst in the Human Genome Project – one of the most pioneering projects of the past 50 years.

In the subsequent two decades, collaborations with experimental researchers, whether in large consortia or in more focused projects, has characterized Peer Bork’s approach to research. One example is the then conceptually novel way of assigning functions to genes by looking at the conservation of gene neighbours across species, thereby inferring protein interactions. A powerful protein interaction network resource emerged – named STRING.

“With the STRING resource, Peer Bork has done what he has done many times before. By creating an online database to collect known and inferred protein–protein interactions, researchers can now predict new ones in their own data. Peer Bork has thus laid the foundation for biological databases and web resources – used across the globe from basic science to bioindustry – for predicting these interactions in an easy way and highly accurately. This has enabled the production of novel medicines but also cleaner, more efficient and sustainable materials. Overall, he has had an absolutely crucial influence on industrial biotechnology,” says Bernard Henrissat.

Microbiomes of the gut and ocean
Peer Bork is on a relentless search for new, emerging research fields where new fundamental insights into biology can be gained, which requires the development of conceptually novel tools. He found one in the mid-2000s with the emergence of the new concept of metagenomics, which is sequencing genome snippets from multiple organisms in environmental samples. This enables researchers to not merely examine one organism but to attempt to characterize communities of microorganisms, such as those residing in the human gut, which harbours hundreds of bacterial species that help to digest our food and send signals and substances around our bodies.

“We have developed tools based on the microorganisms’ DNA that can provide a snapshot of exactly which bacteria we have in our gut system, enabling us to predict early stages of diseases such as colon or pancreatic cancer better than existing methods, using a completely novel – microbial – approach,” explains Peer Bork.

More recently, as part of the Tara Oceans Consortium, Peer Bork adapted those concepts to study the oceans to capture the microbial biodiversity of the oceans in the context of their environmental conditions, for example the rising temperatures. Although Peer Bork’s efforts are obvious to many people, recognition is not high on his list of priorities.

“Most of the feedback I get is usually through being cited in scientific articles by my research colleagues, so I am very flattered that both researchers and key figures in biotechnology companies have taken the time to nominate me for a prize instead. I was somewhat surprised that biotechnology companies use our tools so extensively and I feel very honoured and happy to receive the Novozymes Prize,” says Peer Bork.

About Peer Bork
Peer Bork has published more than 600 research articles in international peer-reviewed journals, including more than 80 in Nature, Science and Cell. He is among the most frequently cited researchers in life sciences worldwide. He has been or is on the editorial board of several journals, including Science and Cell.

2021: ISCB (International Society for Computational Biology): accomplishments of a senior scientist award

2020: Director of the EMBL-Heidelberg site (European Molecular Biology Laboratory), Germany

2016: ERC Advanced Investigator Grant on gut microbiome at the strain level

2011: ERC Advanced Investigator Grant on cancer microbiome

2009: The Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft Award for the advancement of science through computational methods

2008: Nature award for mentoring in science

2001: Head of Unit (department), EMBL-Heidelberg, Germany

1995: Habilitation in theoretical biophysics, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

1995: Group Leader, European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg, Germany

1991: Postdoctoral fellow and project leader, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin and EMBL-Heidelberg, Germany

1990: PhD in biochemistry, Leipzig University, Germany

About the Novozymes Prize
The Prize is awarded to recognize a pioneering research effort or a technological contribution that promotes the development of biotechnology science to generate innovative solutions. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 5 million: DKK 4.5 million for the Prize recipient’s research and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million.

The Prize is awarded for a predominantly European contribution. Prize recipients must be employed at a public or non-profit research institution in a European country. They can have any nationality. The Committee on the Novozymes Prize awards the Prize on behalf of the Novo Nordisk Foundation based on nominations received. Anyone may nominate a candidate for the Prize.

2022 Novozymes Prize nomination form
The Novo Nordisk Foundation has announced the Call for nominations for The Novozymes Prize 2022. Deadline for nomination is 20 May 2021. Read more here.

About the European Molecular Biology Laboratory
The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is one of the world’s leading research institutions and Europe’s flagship laboratory in life sciences. Research at EMBL emphasizes experimental analysis at multiple levels of biological organization, from the molecule to the ecosystems, as well as computational biology, bioinformatics and data sciences.

Research is conducted by more than 80 independent groups covering the spectrum of molecular biology and is complemented by scientific service and training teams. EMBL is international, innovative and interdisciplinary. Its almost 2000 employees from many countries represent scientific disciplines, including biology, physics, chemistry and computer science. EMBL operates from six locations throughout Europe: Heidelberg and Hamburg, Germany; Hinxton, United Kingdom; Grenoble, France; Rome, Italy; and Barcelona, Spain.

Further information

Christian Mostrup, Senior Programme Lead, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]