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Sjors Scheres, of MRC LMB, earns Royal Society Leeuwenhoek Medal for innovations in cryo-EM image analysis

Dr Sjors Scheres, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, has won the Royal Society’s Leeuwenhoek Medal, for his innovations in the field of electron cryo-microscopy.

A group leader, and joint head of the LMB’s Structural Studies Division, Dr Scheres will deliver the Leeuwenhoek Lecture as part of the award, which is given biennially and rewards excellence in the fields of microbiology, bacteriology, virology, mycology, parasitology, and microscopy. It is named after Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek – a fellow of the Royal Society often described as “the father of microbiology”.

Dr Sjors Scheres. Picture: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Dr Sjors Scheres. Picture: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Dr Scheres has been recognised for his contributions to the development of image analysis and reconstruction methods in cryo-EM.

He created image processing software, run through the computer programme RELION and now used across the world, that reconstructs three-dimensional structures from protein molecule images taken with electron microscopes.

This has enabled the structure determination of complex molecules to an atomic level - a record-breaking resolution for cryo-EM.

Among the biological breakthroughs it has enabled was resolving the structure of tau filaments from patients with Alzheimer’s - work carried out in collaboration with Michel Goedert’s group in the LMB’s Neurobiology Division.

Since then, the technique has solved the distinct structures of tau filaments from numerous more related diseases, including corticobasal degeneration (CBD), Pick’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The discoveries have great medical implications for the development of tracer compounds that could diagnose and distinguish different tauopathies and disease-specific therapies.

It was at Utrecht University that, during his PhD, that the researcher began his methodological developments, developing a loose-atom refinement method for protein crystallography.

He then graduated to image processing tools for cryo-EM during his post-doctoral fellowship at CNB-CSIC in Madrid, where he introduced maximum-likelihood classification algorithms, before joining the LMB as a group leader in 2010.

He said: “I am thrilled and honoured to receive this award, which is named after such an inspiring fellow Dutch scientist, who pioneered the use of microscopes to look at the processes of life.

“I am also extremely grateful to my wonderful colleagues, as reaching atomic resolution by cryo-EM structure determination or solving structures of amyloids from human brain would not have been possible without their essential contributions.”

Dr Scheres becomse the fourth LMB researcher to receive this prestigious medal and deliver its accompanying lecture, following Aaron Klug in 1973, Tony Crowther in 2006 and Brad Amos in 2012.

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