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You are here: BioMedTech Cambridge genomics duo in the steps of Pasteur

Cambridge genomics duo in the steps of Pasteur


Two Cambridge UK genomics scientists have been honoured with Fellowships by the Royal Society. Professor Julian Parkhill of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre and Dr Ewan Birney at the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute have been named Fellows for their contributions to genomics research, which has led to innovation in medical technology.

They are among eleven scientists and engineers from Cambridge named in the 50-strong roll call of new Fellows named today by the Royal Society. They include Autonomy founder Dr Mike Lynch  who now heads up the Cambridge and London venture capital vehicle, Invoke Capital. Lynch is a distinguished leader in the application of non-linear adaptive signal processing and pattern recognition to unstructured information. Creator of the Bayesian framework and platform at the heart of Autonomy's products and CEO of the company for 15 years, Lynch is an inspiration and role model for entrepreneurs particularly in the engineering and technology sectors.

Professor Parkhill has been recognised for his work on infectious disease; he is a leading researcher in microbiology, using genomics to develop better understanding of bacterial evolution and improving healthcare as a direct result.

Thomson Reuters, which measures publication records of researchers, has placed Professor Parkhill in its most highly cited list of microbiologists on several occasions: Professor Parkhill has published more than 300 scientific research papers: his work has been cited by other researchers more than 26,000 times.

Prof Parkhill said: “The Royal Society stands for all that is good about scientific research, but above all the need for evidence and objectivity. Its former members include Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, pioneers of microbiological research, who changed our understanding of infectious disease from a supposition about vapours and miasmas to a scientific study of organisms. It is humbling to be a small part of this legacy.

“It's a huge honour and all who are familiar with my work will know it is completely dependent on collaboration with others: the esteem of this award is shared by all with whom I have worked in my career.”

Professor Parkhill studies the genomes of microorganisms, particularly bacterial species that cause human disease. His work has included analysis of the global spread of cholera, studies that contributed to the ending of an MRSA outbreak in a neonatal hospital ward, research to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance in tuberculosis, the evasion of vaccines by whooping cough and other diseases. The bacterial species into which he has led research programmes cause meningitis, septicaemia, plague, cholera, whooping cough, tuberculosis, dystentery, diphtheria, leprosy, food poisoning, STDs, and many other diseases.

Professor Mike Stratton, director of the Wellcome trust Sanger Institute, added: “Julian's 17-year career at the Sanger Institute epitomises many of the things we seek to achieve.

“He has taken our Institute pathogen sequencing from the first steps of single genomes – our work on the genome of the organism that causes

tuberculosis – to our studies today in which we can use the tools we have developed to determine when and where outbreaks occur, how

antibiotic resistance emerges, how vaccines begin to lose


“In his work, he has transformed pathogen genomics at the Institute and globally from a study of bacterial species to a force to improve healthcare. This election the Fellowship of the Royal Society is fully deserved.”

Ewan Birney is joint associate director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute and has grown to be a force in genomics due to his innovation in genome analysis – both algorithmic and integrative analyses. He wrote the first error-tolerant, splice-aware protein alignment programme, used in the human and subsequent genome analysis; he co-authored one of the first and most widely used short read assemblers.

In terms of data integration, Dr Birney has led the analysis in many genomic consortia, in particular ENCODE, leading the integration of many genomic assays; for example making robust predictions of enhancers, promoters, and their integration with disease associated regions. He also co-developed many widely used bioinformatics resources.

He said: “This is one of the highest honours for a British scientist to receive, and I am extremely pleased to be elected to the Royal Society. The founding of the Royal Society represents a foundational shift in knowledge from authority-led to peer-based discourse, and I am very honoured to be part of this tradition.

“To me, this fellowship represents both recognition of the prominence of bioinformatics in the life sciences and an opportunity to discuss infrastructures for contemporary life science research at the highest levels.”

Professor Dame Janet Thornton, FRS, said: “Ewan richly deserves this recognition for the leading role he has played in computational genomics since its very beginnings. At 41, Ewan is very young to be admitted to the Fellowship and with his boundless energy he will be able to influence science and science policy through the Royal Society in the UK and beyond for many years to come.”


Other Cambridge academics honoured today by the Royal Society are:


Professor Geoffrey Grimmett FRS 

(Professor of Mathematical Statistics, Statistical Laboratory, University of Cambridge, and Master, Downing College, Cambridge)

At a time of flowering of probabilistic methods in all branches of mathematics, Geoffrey Grimmett is one of the broadest probabilists of his generation, and unquestionably a leading figure in the subject on the world scene. He is particularly recognised for his achievements in the rigorous theory of disordered physical systems. Especially influential is his work on and around percolation theory, the contact model for stochastic spatial epidemics, and the random-cluster model, a class that includes the Ising/Potts models of ferromagnetism. His monograph on percolation is a standard work in a core areas of probability, and is widely cited. His breadth within probability is emphasized by his important contributions to probabilistic combinatorics and probabilistic number theory.


Professor Richard Hills FRS

(Emeritus Professor of Radio Astronomy, Astrophysics Group, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge)

Since the early 1970s Richard Hills has played a leading role in the development of radio astronomy at millimetre wavelengths, an essential zone of the spectrum for the study of star formation in galaxies. As Project Scientist of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Hawaii he was closely involved with the design and operation of this highly successful telescope.

For his outstanding contribution to this project he was awarded the Jacksonian Gwilt Medal and Gift of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1989. From 2007 to 2012 he was Project Scientist of the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile. The first scheduled observations at 345 GHz using 16 of the planned 66 antennas took place in September 2011. These demonstrated the full angular resolution obtained by phase-coherent aperture synthesis which requires continuous monitoring of atmospheric absorption along the line of sight above each antenna. The outstanding scientific leadership shown by Richard Hills undoubtedly played a major part in the success of this challenging international project.


Dr Timothy Holland FRS

(Petrologist, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge)

Timothy Holland has made fundamental and enduring contributions to petrology. He was the first to show that surface rocks had been buried to over 70 km. He has worked to construct a self-consistent thermodynamic database which describes equilibria among the multi-component mineral phases important in rocks and with full propagation of errors. This work, among the most highly cited in the geosciences, now underpins most petrological research. Recent advances include the calculation of mineral assemblages and compositions as a function of composition, pressure and temperature and the thermodynamic modelling of silicate melts, critical to tectonic interpretations of deeply buried rocks.


Professor Martin Johnson FMedSci FRS

(Emeritus Professor of Reproductive Sciences, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge)

Johnson’s seminal scientific contribution was the discovery and analysis of cellular polarization during early mammalian development. He showed that this event initiated the first lineage segregation: one lineage formed the outer implanting layer of the placenta while the fetal body developed form the other. Recent techniques have permitted further understanding of this vital and decisive moment, and they all depend and build on his foundations. He also contributed to human reproductive sciences with his work leading to change in clinical practice.


Professor Vladimir Markovic FRS

(Sadleirian Professor of Mathematics, Department of Mathematics, University of Cambridge and MacArthur Professor of Mathematics, California Institute of Technology)

Markovic is a world leader in the area of quasiconformal homeomorphisms and low dimensional topology and geometry. He has solved many famous and difficult problems. With Jeremy Kahn, he proved William Thurston's key conjecture that every closed hyperbolic 3-manifold contains an almost geodesic immersed surface.


Professor Paul Midgley FRS

(Professor of Materials Science, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge)

Midgley is distinguished for many innovations and impressive applications of transmission microscopy, diffraction and spectroscopy, particularly the pioneering development of sub-nanometre-scale electron tomography. His combination of high-angle dark field tomography and spectroscopy revolutionises the 3-d characterisation of materials and heterogeneous catalysts. He has successfully mapped dislocation networks with diffraction contrast tomography. With his world leading position in medium resolution electron holography, he has been able to combine this with tomography in 3-d mapping of electric fields and dopant distributions in semiconductor devices. His brilliant applications of electron diffraction to sub-micron structures, heavy fermion systems and mixed-valent manganites were important breakthroughs.


Dr Karalyn Patterson FMedSci FRS

(Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge and MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge)

Karalyn Patterson was one of the prime initiators of the field of cognitive neuropsychology. The different approaches she has developed to study brain based disorders of language and memory have brought great rigour to the field, and have allowed stringent tests of different theories. She is one of the very few people in the world able to adopt a truly multi-disciplinary approach including computational modelling, behavioural observation, neuropsychological testing and functional neuroimaging. Consequently, her work has led to a better understanding of how language and memory are organised in the brain, and how they unravel in Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.


Professor Randy Read FRS

(Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow, Professor of Protein Crystallography, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, University of Cambridge)

Professor Read is known internationally for his outstanding and fundamental contributions to the development of macromolecular crystallographic software. His application of maximum likelihood based algorithms to the solution of macromolecular crystal structures by molecular replacement (a technique that uses a known structure of a homologue to solve an unknown structure) has resulted in software (Phaser) that is foremost in the field. He also devised and demonstrated an improved likelihood target function for model refinement that has been adopted by all major refinement programs. In addition, Professor Read has led structural work that has made significant contributions to understanding the mechanisms of proteins relevant to disease (bacterial toxins and serpins).


Professor David Ron FMedSci FRS

(Professor of Cellular Pathophysiology and Clinical Biochemistry, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research and the Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge)

David Ron has pioneered our understanding of how cells cope with the stress induced by protein misfolding in the endoplasmic reticulum. This stress is increasingly recognised to contribute to many diseases including endocrine disorders and neurodegeneration. Among many achievements, he has deciphered the molecular mechanism by which cells match protein synthesis rates to protein folding in the secretory pathway. His greatest conceptual contribution has been to reveal the precariousness of the protein folding environment in the ER and to highlight how it is challenged by subtle failure of homeostasis - concepts with both fundamental implications to biology and therapeutic application.

The Fellowship of the Royal Society is composed of over 1450 Fellows and Foreign members, including 80 Nobel Laureates.