Max Planck Humboldt Research Award Winner Researches Key Mechanisms of the Bacterial Immune System with Würzburg Helmholtz Institute and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Kandice Tanner (left), Rotem Sorek (middle) und Amy Buck (right). © David Ausserhofer / MPG (2); Weizmann Institute of Science

Rotem Sorek from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel will receive the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award 2023, which is presented together with 1.5 million euros in prize money, in acknowledgement for his research into bacterial defence mechanisms against viruses. The researcher has discovered that bacteria have a complex immune system, from which components of the human immune system originate. The prize money will fund a joint research project with researchers from the Helmholtz-Institute for RNA-based Infection Research in Würzburg and the Ludwig Maximilians Universität of Munich, in which key mechanisms of the bacterial and human immune systems will be investigated.

Rotem Sorek has discovered that the defence mechanisms in bacteria extend far beyond the CRISPR-Cas system, with which bacteria use to defend themselves against invading viruses.  Inside the genetic material of thousands of different bacteria, he systematically looked for anti-phage defence systems and, in so doing, discovered a variety of defence mechanisms that function like an immune system for the protection of the bacteria. Many of these form the origin of defence functions present in the human immune system.

For these research achievements, Rotem Sorek is now being presented with the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award 2023. The research award, which is presented along with 1.5 million euros in prize money, enables exceptional scientists from abroad to undertake a research project in Germany. Sorek will research key mechanisms of bacterial and human immune systems. To this end, he will partner with Jörg Vogel from the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research at the University of Würzburg and Veit Hornung from the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. Together, the researchers intend to identify hitherto unknown antiviral defence strategies of the human immune system with the help of bacterial anti-phage defence mechanisms, which could be used in new therapies for treating infections.

The CRISPR-Cas system is already being used as a "gene scissor" in genetic engineering and is being further developed for therapies.

Winners of the Max Planck Humboldt Medal

The Max Planck-Humboldt Medal will be awarded to Amy Buck from the University of Edinburgh for her research into inter-species communication via RNA and Kandice Tanner from the Center for Cancer research, NCI NIH, for developing methods of analysing the biophysical properties and behaviour that dictate the metastatic spread of cancer cells.