Category: Sanger Life

Living and working at the Sanger Institute

Sanger Life

Sanger Institute Scientist receives the Eppendorf Award for Young European Investigators

26 June 2012

Written by Aileen Sheehy

Dr Elizabeth Murchison has made quite an impact since she first joined the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in 2009. Since her arrival on a NHMRC Australian Overseas Fellowship, she has been awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science Fellowship, a science heirloom from the Medical Research Council to honour female role models in science and has spoken about her research at the TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] conference, a non-profit event dedicated to bringing together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers.

To add to Elizabeth’s already impressive list of accomplishments, she has now been awarded with the 2012 Eppendorf Award for Young European Investigators for her ongoing research into the deadly transmissible facial cancer that is spreading among the endemic population of Tasmanian devils in Tasmania and threatening the survival of the species.

In 2010, Elizabeth was the lead researcher to create a draft genome sequence for the endangered Tasmanian devil (announced at the AMATA 2010 Conference in Hobart, Tasmania). Elizabeth’s research continued with a catalogue of the mutations present in the transmissible facial cancer endemic in the Tasmanian Devil population published in Cell (PUBMED: 22341448; PMC: 3281993; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.11.065). This study has led to clues about where the cancer came from and how it became contagious

Since starting her research at the Sanger Institute, Elizabeth has extended her research, by looking at another transmissible cancer called Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour – a sexually transmitted cancer found in dogs. Although recovery rates are far higher in the canine cancer than in the Tasmanian devil cancer, the principles of transmission through cell transplantation are the same.

Looking at these cancers is providing Elizabeth with unique insights into what happens when a cancer can survive beyond its host. In evolutionary terms this affords Elizabeth a fascinating glimpse of the risk factors for the potential outbreak of similar diseases in other species, including humans.

With the Eppendorf Young Investigator Award which was established in 1995, Eppendorf AG honors outstanding work in biomedical research and supports young European scientists up to the age of 35. The Eppendorf Award is presented in partnership with the scientific journal Nature. The official presentation of the Award took place at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, May 9, 2012.

Aileen Sheehy is a member of the Media, Public Relations and Communications team at the Sanger Institute.

Sanger Life

Fourth Institute bioinformatician wins open access award

A fourth Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute alumnus – Heng Li – has won the eleventh Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences. Remarkably the Institute has trained and developed more than one third of the winners of this award, reinforcing the data-sharing and open-access ethos of the Institute. Even more remarkably, all four winners have been trained in Richard Durbin’s research group: Heng Li (2012), Alex Bateman (2010), Sean Eddy (2007) and Ewan Birney (2005).

Heng Li was chosen from a shortlist of seven open-acess practitioners by voting members of the community.

The Sanger Institute is founded on, and dedicated to, the open-access and sharing of data to power bioinformatic research around the world. However, data sharing without the tools to interpret and interrogate the data is useless. So the Institute is also committed to research that powers the development of, and delivery and sharing of, software to allow genomic data to be compared, mined and studied.

It’s therefore really fitting that Heng Li has been awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences. His input has created essential tools to enable next-generation sequencing data to be analysed, interpreted and shared. For example, he has helped to produce a range of sequence alignment tools and algorithms including SAMtools, BWA, MAQ and TreeSoft. Using these programs, researchers have been able to read the whole genomes of organisms to find genetic differences between individuals in the same species. For example, research into structural changes in the genome and the genetic basis of human disease based on the 1000 Genomes Project use this software.

In addition, he has developed tools to analyse gene family evolution and build phylogenetic trees, including the TreeBeST program, TreeFam and EnsemblGeneTrees databases. Research using these resources is revealing insights into the evolution of species and the changes happening within them.

Yet such tools are of little value unless researchers are given help and advice in using the software and databases and mining their full potential. Heng has not only contributed to the creation and sharing of a wide range of vital software tools that form an essential resource for bioinformaticians around the world, he is also dedicated to the ideal of sharing knowledge by helping bioinformaticians to understand and use his tools by regularly contributing to bioinformatics forums and guiding new users.

Info on previous winners from Richard Durbin’s group (taken from the Benjamin Franklin Award page on website):

2010 – Alex Bateman
Alex won the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Award for leading the freely available PfamRfam and MEROPS databases. He was also the Executive Editor for the open-access Database issue of the journal Nucleic Acids Research for many years. Furthermore, Bateman helped initiate the RNA Families track at the journal RNA Biology, where a Wikipedia article is required for each published RNA family.

2007 – Sean Eddy
Sean received 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for the development and free distribution of HMMER, which has revolutionized the use of profile Hidden Markov Models in protein sequence analysis, and for the co-creation of the Pfam database of protein domains and families, which has been an essential counterpart as the basis of genome annotations, family classification systems such as GO, and much of our common language of protein annotation.

2005 – Ewan Birney
Ewan Birney was honoured with the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Award for his promotion of Open Access in bioinformatics and science. He has been a key developer in the Ensembl and BioPerl projects and a strong advocate for making genome information freely available.