Peer Bork, who heads a team of bioinformatic researchers at the Heidelberg, Germany- based European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), has been recognised for his outstanding contributions to the field by winning the fourth annual Royal Society and Académie des Sciences Microsoft Award
EMBL’s Peer Bork recognised for work in bioinformatics
Peer Bork, who heads a team of bioinformatic researchers at the Heidelberg, Germany- based European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), has been recognised for his outstanding contributions to the field by winning the fourth annual Royal Society and Académie des Sciences Microsoft Award. The €250,000 award, funded by Microsoft Research, recognises scientists working in Europe at the intersection of science and computing.
The Royal Society panel that awarded Bork the prize in September praised his pioneering work in using computational data analysis to check drugs for hidden targets, as well as his current efforts to understand the impact that microorganisms have on human health. Bork received his award on 17 November at a ceremony in Paris at the Académie des Sciences, Palais de I’Institut de France.
In an interview with Futures, Bork says he welcomes the fact that the emerging field of bioinformatics – which uses information technology to quantify and analyse biological data – is finally being recognised. “At the end of the 1980s people laughed at us for using computers. They said biology should be studied out in a field,” he recalls. “Classical biologists were not comfortable with computers.” But with advances in technology, the field of bioinformatics had finally started to earn some well-due respect. Such awards can only contribute to the cause by recognising the accomplishments of one of its pioneers.
Putting the puzzle together: Berlin-born Peer Bork, joint coordinator of the Structural Biology and Bioinformatics Group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.
In his early efforts, Bork and his team pioneered the use of computational data to quantify protein domains – units within proteins – to discover the nature of disease proteins. Later, his team at EMBL opened up another field by looking at the potentially positive side effects of certain target drugs. Some of these efforts focused on genome annotation, comparative analysis of protein modules, biochemical pathways and networks, and networks of chemicals and proteins. “We used the general data available to find new ways of tackling these problems,” he says modestly.
A native of Germany, Bork received his masters in biochemistry at the University of Leipzig in 1988, then later completed his PhD in biochemistry and biophysics in Leipzig and Berlin. He says he chose early on to combine his interest in computers and biology because it provided him more room to develop his creativity than was typically open to a maths-oriented student in what was then the German Democratic Republic (DDR). “If you were an architect, all you could do was make cement blocks,” he quips. He also foresaw a big future for the field.
Bork’s efforts have not stayed in the lab, either. Some of his group’s intellectual property has been commercialised via biotech companies that he helped found, including LION bioscience AG, now part of the publicly traded Sygnis Pharma AG, Cellzome AG, Anadys Pharmaceuticals, and biobyte solutions GmbH.
Now, Bork and his team are turning their efforts to metagenomics, in which data are connected to help solve ecological issues, a field which should provide more than enough room for Bork’s creativity. “We want to understand how microbes interact with each other and their environment,” he says.
The team at EMBL will focus on microbes in two areas: ocean water, and the human body. In the human intestine alone, there are 10,000 species of microbes that are unknown. Deciphering their behaviour could help researchers address conditions such as diarrhoea, which still causes a fifth of child deaths worldwide. “We must put the puzzle together on how these microbes interact, and what risk factors we can correlate with them, such as diet or obesity. Today, you take antibiotics and they kill pretty much everything. That’s not healthy. We need to understand infections better so we can come up with more clever ways to treat disease.”
Author: Mary Lisbeth D'Amico