The Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine 2020 is awarded in equal shares to Gero Miesenböck, Waynflete Professor of Physiology and Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, University of Oxford, UK, Peter Hegemann, Hertie Professor for Neuroscience and Head of the Department of Biophysics, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany and Georg Nagel, Professor for Molecular Plant-Physiology, Physiological Institute – Department of Neuroscience, University of Würzburg, Germany for the development of optogenetics, a technology that has revolutionized neuroscience.
Understanding the brain is a daunting challenge. Each of the many billions of nerve cells in the human brain may make thousands of contacts with other neurons, resulting in an astronomical number of synaptic connections. The tools that allow us to trace and regulate neural networks in experimental animals have emerged in recent years and thanks to the discoveries of our Shaw Life Science Awardees for 2020: Gero Miesenböck of Oxford University, Peter Hegemann of Humboldt University, Berlin, and Georg Nagel of the University of Würzburg.
An Essay on the Prize
Understanding the brain is a daunting challenge. Each of the many billions of nerve cells in the human brain may make thousands of contacts with other neurons, resulting in an astronomical number of synaptic connections. The tools that allow us to trace and regulate neural networks in experimental animals have emerged in recent years thanks to the discoveries of our Shaw Life Science Awardees for 2020: Gero Miesenböck of Oxford University, Peter Hegemann of Humboldt University, Berlin, and Georg Nagel of the University of Würzburg.
Neuroscientists had long sought methods to control the activity of individual nerve cells in order to understand the networks in which they communicate and define the processes they control. Direct activation of nerve cells by physical or chemical means had been used for over two centuries, but the dream had been to modify nerve cells genetically so that electrical signals could be induced or suppressed remotely, allowing a less invasive and more precise means of controlling the function of neural networks in an intact organism. The first key breakthrough came in 2002 with the development of an optogenetic tool devised by Gero Miesenböck. Using a naturally light-responsive protein, rhodopsin, which serves as the pigment on which we rely for vision, his team inserted the Drosophila (fruitfly) genes necessary to express the light-responsive rhodopsin into a vertebrate nerve cell culture.
Gero Miesenböck was born in 1965 in Upper Austria and is currently Waynflete Professor of Physiology and Director of the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford, UK. He received his MD from the University of Innsbruck, Austria. He did postdoctoral research at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Research Institute in New York (1992–1998) and remained as an Assistant Member and Head of Laboratory of Neural Systems there (1999–2004). At the same time, he was also an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Cell Biology and Genetics at Cornell University, USA. He served as Associate Professor of Cell Biology, Cellular and Molecular Physiology at Yale University School of Medicine, USA (2004–2007) until he moved to his current position in Oxford. He is a member of the Austrian and German Academies of Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
21 May 2020 Hong Kong
Peter Hegemann was born in 1954 in Münster, Germany and is currently the Hertie Professor for Neuroscience and Head of the Department for Biophysics at Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany. He studied in Chemistry at the University of Münster and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat ät München (LMU Munich) from 1975 to 1980. He received his PhD from Max-Planck Institut (MPI) for Biochemistry, Germany (1984). He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Syracuse University, USA (1985–1986). He then returned to Germany and started a research group at MPI for Biochemistry (1986–1992), after which he became a Professor at the University of Regensburg, Germany (1993–2004) and has been appointed Full Professor (2005–) and Hertie Professor for Neuroscience (2015–) at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina.
21 May 2020 Hong Kong
Georg Nagel was born in 1953 in Weingarten, Germany and is currently a Professor for Molecular Plant-Physiology at the University of Würzburg, Germany. He studied Biology and Biophysics at the University of Konstanz, Germany and received his PhD from the University of Frankfurt, Germany in 1988. After postdoctoral work at Yale University, USA and Rockefeller University, USA, he returned to Germany in 1992, as a group leader in the Department of Biophysical Chemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics. Since 2004, he has been Professor of Molecular Plant-Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Wurzburg.
21 May 2020 Hong Kong
"Lighting Up the Brain" by Professor Gero Miesenböck, "Optogenetics, Shaping with Light" by Professor Peter Hegemann and "From Biophysics to Optogenetics, A Surprising Journey with Microbial Rhodopsins" by Professor Georg Nagel