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Royal Society award for Dr Greg Jefferis of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology as he seeks to understand how our brains work

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Dr Greg Jefferis, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Picture: MRC LMB
Dr Greg Jefferis, of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Picture: MRC LMB

Group leader is mapping connections between individual nerve cells in tiny brain of the fruit fly

Dr Greg Jefferis is researching how brains function
Dr Greg Jefferis is researching how brains function

A group leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge who is trying to unravel the basic principles of how our brains function has won a Royal Society Award.

Dr Greg Jefferis, group leader in the LMB’s Neurobiology Division, has been awarded the Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2018.

His lab is using the humble fruit fly, Drosophila - which has a brain the size of a poppy seed - to probe the secrets of what is perhaps the most complex structure in the universe: the human brain.

Understanding how the 100 billion nerve cells in our brains control our behaviour is one of the major challenges facing scientists today.

One in four of us will have a significant mental health issue in our lifetime, so understanding the workings of our brains has huge implications for our wellbeing.

The brain of the fruit fly is the size of a poppy seed but contains 100,000 neurons
The brain of the fruit fly is the size of a poppy seed but contains 100,000 neurons

The fruit fly’s brain may be miniature by comparison, but still contains about 100,000 neurons and is capable of surprisingly sophisticated behaviour.

The award from the Royal Society recognises Greg’s discoveries concerning the developmental and functional logic of sensory information processing.

Mapping connections between individual nerve cells in the fruit fly brain, Greg’s lab is help us to understand how both innate and learned behaviours emerge from these networks.

Greg, who will deliver the prize lecture in December 2019, as part of the Royal Society’s public programme of events, said: “It’s amazing to receive a prize connected to two scientists (Crick and Brenner) who have not just been scientific inspirations, but also have such a strong connection to the LMB. I’m also extremely happy that my area of research – genetic approaches to neural circuits and behaviour – is being recognised.

“Although it’s lovely to receive a personal award, the body of work being recognised is based on the skill and creativity of many past and present members of our group. Indeed, neuroscience is such a wide-ranging and highly collaborative field that at the last count I have 131 co-authors from across the world, all of whom have made some significant contribution.”

Dr M Madan Babu at the LMB is a previous Royal Society award winner. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr M Madan Babu at the LMB is a previous Royal Society award winner. Picture: Keith Heppell

The work of Greg’s lab has recently identified sex-specific switches in pheromone circuits in the brain as well as the genetic origins of such sex differences.

Another research area has identified how learned and innate sensory representations are combined and how this interaction is critical to memory recall.

Using this powerful experimental system is designed to help us understand basic principles of brain function.

But the genes underlying brain function and development are highly conserved and there is growing evidence that the same is true of the principles of circuit organisation and information processing.

This means the work could help us understand the function of bigger brains in health and disease.

Dr Sarah Teichmann won a Royal Society awards in 2012. Picture: Pari Naderi
Dr Sarah Teichmann won a Royal Society awards in 2012. Picture: Pari Naderi

The Royal Society’s medals, awards and prize lectures recognise excellence in science and technology.

The Francis Crick Medal and Lecture is given annually in the biological sciences, with preference given to genetics, molecular biology and neurobiology - the general areas in which Francis Crick worked.

Crick, who worked at what is now the MRC LMB, famously identified the structure of DNA with James Watson in 1953.

Previous winners at the LMB, which is based on Cambridge Biomedical Campus, include Madan Babu Mohan (2016), Sarah Teichmann (2012) and Jason Chin (2009).

The awards in full


Copley Medal (announced in May 2018)

Professor Jeffrey Gordon: For his contributions to understanding the role of gut microbial communities to human health and disease.

Royal Medals

Sir Stephen Sparks CBE FRS: For his contributions to our understanding of volcanoes, including evaluating their risks and mitigating their hazards.

Professor Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS: For his research on morphogenesis and pattern formation that led to the concept of positional information in embryonic development.

Sir Shankar Balasubramanian FMedSci FRS and Professor David Klenerman FMedSci FRS: For their co-development of DNA sequencing techniques transforming biology and genomic medicine.

Croonian Medal and Lecture

Dame Kay Davies DBE FMedSci FRS: For her achievements in developing a prenatal test for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and for her work characterising the binding partners of the protein dystrophin.

Bakerian Medal and Lecture

Professor Edward Hinds FRS: For his achievements in controlling individual atoms, molecules and photons. With these, he has advanced our understanding of fundamental phenomena such as Casimir forces, dark energy, and supersymmetry.


Davy Medal

Professor John Pyle FRS: For pioneering leadership in understanding the depletion of the global ozone layer by halocarbons, particularly coupling between chemistry, radiation, and dynamics, and the special vulnerability of Arctic ozone.

Hughes Medal

Professor James Durrant FRS: For his distinguished photochemical studies for the design solar energy devices, particular by transient spectroscopic studies of dye sensitized solar cells and of photoelectrochemical water splitting.

Rumford Medal

Professor Ian Walmsley FRS: For pioneering work in the quantum control of light and matter on ultrashort timescales, especially the invention and application of new techniques for characterization of quantum and classical light fields.

Sylvester Medal

Professor Dusa McDuff FRS: For her pioneering role in the development of the new field of symplectic geometry and topology. Her outstanding work includes many fundamental theorems and she has been inspirational for generations of mathematicians.

Buchanan Medal

Sir Adrian Peter Bird CBE FRS: For his discovery that the MeCP2 protein silences transcription of methylated DNA and can reverse established Rett Syndrome in MeCP2 deficiency, demonstrating that such neurodevelopmental diseases are curable.

Darwin Medal

Professor William Hill OBE FRS: For his contribution to our understanding of the genetics of quantitative traits and response to selection.

Gabor Medal

Professor Cait MacPhee CBE: For her contributions to understanding protein aggregation that inform approaches to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes and to the creation of self-assembled functional biopolymers.

Kavli Education Medal

Professor Alice Rogers OBE: For her outstanding contributions to mathematics education.


The following medals are also awarded an associated prize lecture, which will be delivered at the Royal Society in London:

Francis Crick Medal and Lecture

Dr Gregory Jefferis: For his discoveries concerning the developmental and functional logic of sensory information processing.

Kavli Medal and Lecture

Professor Edward Hawkins: For his contributions to the understanding and quantifying natural climate variability and long-term climate change, and for actively communicating climate science.

Michael Faraday Medal and Lecture

Professor Danielle George MBE: For her excellence in communicating science.

Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture

Professor Tamsin Mather: On the basis of her achievements in the field of volcanology, her ability to communicate with the public and her imaginative project proposal.

Milner Medal and Lecture

Professor Eugene Myers: For his development of computational techniques that have brought genome sequencing into everyday use, underpinned key biological sequencing tools, and made large scale analysis of biological images practical.

Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal and Lecture

Professor Mark Jackson: For his significant contributions in popularising medical history and the medical humanities.


Royal Society Africa Award

Dr Dorothy Yeboah-Manu: For her contributions and innovative approaches to understanding Mycobacterium ulcerans and Mycobacterium africanum, combining microbiology, genetic studies and epidemiology.

Royal Society Armourers and Braisers’ Company Prize

Professor Steven Armes FRS: For his pioneering development of colloidal nanocomposite particles. He has demonstrated many applications; his fruitful collaborations with companies has inspired three successful commercial products.

Royal Society Mullard Award

Professor Florin Udrea FREng and Professor Julian Gardner FREng: For their work as renowned academics and serial entrepreneurs who together founded and led a most successful spin-off in the physical sciences, active in environmental and air quality sensors.

Royal Society Athena Prize 2018 Individual Category

Emma Chapman, Imperial College London: For driving nationally impactful policy changes concerning sexual harassment issues in higher education.

Royal Society Athena Prize 2018 Team Category

Communications Team, the Academy of Medical Sciences: For an evidence-based, sustainable and impactful programme that has increased the visibility and participation of female scientists in the media.

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