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Biology Wizard Surprised to Receive Novozymes Prize

29 Jan
2018

The 2018 Novozymes Prize is being awarded to Gunnar von Heijne, Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, Stockholm University, for his scientific breakthroughs in studies of membrane proteins.

Membrane proteins perform various functions that are key to the survival of organisms, such as a vital role in transporting chemicals in and out of cells.

Defective membrane proteins can therefore also have major consequences for people’s health.

“Although only 25–30% of all proteins are located in membranes, more than half of all drugs target these membrane proteins. Knowledge about such proteins is therefore enormously important in treating disease,” explains Gunnar von Heijne.

One thing Gunnar von Heijne and his colleagues have shown in their research is how membrane proteins are formed and function; they have developed algorithms to successfully predict the structures of proteins.

Researchers around the world regularly use these tools. Another major contribution Gunnar von Heijne has made in his research career spanning more than 40 years concerns how proteins as cellular building blocks fold and are transported.

“Early on, we identified the barcodes or signalling sequences that cells use to recognize the end target for a single protein. This achievement was the starting-point for developing many calculation tools that can predict very accurately the structures into which the proteins fold,” says Gunnar von Heijne.

These systematic predictions have been essential in industrial biotechnology, since they play a key role in inducing microorganisms to produce such pharmaceutical compounds as insulin.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation awards the Novozymes Prize and the accompanying DKK 3 million to recognize a pioneering research effort or a technological contribution that promotes the development of biotechnology science to generate innovative solutions.

Frequently cited

Jens Nielsen, Chair of the Novozymes Prize Committee, says, “The fact that many of Gunnar von Heijne’s scientific articles are so frequently cited, even many years after being published, really indicates the impact of his fundamental, long-term and original research. In addition to his impressive scientific output, Gunnar von Heijne has played a major, active and extremely important role in communicating science to both young people and society as a whole.”

“Gunnar von Heijne’s work is very original and often surprising, elegant, thought-provoking and imaginative. By combining theoretical and bioinformatics research with systematic biochemical testing and validation, he has succeeded in developing several concepts that are in the textbooks used in universities throughout the world,” says Jens Nielsen.

Gunnar von Heijne could not predict that he would receive the Prize. However, he knew from his many years as a chair and secretary of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry that being surprised is not uncommon when a prize recipient receives the good news.

“Typically, the news triggers one of three reactions. Some think it is a practical joke and take a while to be convinced. Then some think – and may even say –  that it was about time they got the prize. Finally, the members of the third and largest group are surprised and speechless that their colleagues have honoured them in this way. I belong to this last group and am deeply moved that researchers from outside my field have found me a worthy recipient of the Prize.”

ABOUT GUNNAR VON HEIJNE

1975: MSc in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering,
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

1980: PhD in Theoretical Physics,
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

1980–1981: Postdoctoral fellow,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

1987 : Visiting Professor, Molecular Biology Institute,
University of California, Los Angeles

1989–1994: Associate Professor,
Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

1994–: Professor of Theoretical Chemistry,
Stockholm University, Sweden

2000-2006: Director, Stockholm Bioinformatics Center,
Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

2006–: Director, Center for Biomembrane Research,
Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

1998–2009: Member,
Nobel Committee for Chemistry

2017– : Member,
Nobel Committee for Chemistry

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 3 million: DKK 2.5 million for the Prize winner’s research and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million.

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

FURTHER INFORMATION

Gunnar von Heijne, Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics,
Stockholm University, gunnar@dbb.su.se

Christian Mostrup Scheel, Senior Press Officer,
Novo Nordisk Foundation, phone: +45 3067 4805, cims@novo.dk

The Novo Nordisk Foundation is awarding the 2018 Novozymes Prize to Gunnar von Heijne. The Prize is accompanied by DKK 3 million.

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