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Richard Benton and Ben Lehner awarded EMBO Gold Medal 2016



IMAGE: Richard Benton (left) and Ben Lehner are being awarded the EMBO Gold Medal 2016. view more

Credit: Photo Richard Benton: Felix Imhof, UNIL Photo Ben Lehner: CRE

Richard Benton was awarded the EMBO Gold Medal 2016 for his work on olfactory perception in insects. There are many similarities between the organizational structure of the neural systems underlying olfaction in insects and vertebrates. However, Richard Benton and his colleagues found that the molecular basis for recognizing smell is different. He showed that insect odorant receptors, the molecular detectors of scent, define a novel class of genes, with evolutionary roots in the common ancestor of animals and plants. He discovered a second family of odorant receptors - the fly's "second nose", as he called it - that belongs to a group of proteins previously thought to function only in the communication between neurons (1).

Building on these discoveries, Richard Benton expanded his research to related fields. "Richard Benton has been praised by the referees for his courage and perseverance in challenging dogma regarding odorant receptors, while also contributing to behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology," said Maria Leptin, EMBO Director. Insect olfaction provided an ideal model to explore the evolution of new genes as there is a strong pressure to cope with an ever-changing olfactory environment. In addition, Richard Benton and his group have made discoveries in the field of behavioral biology addressing, for example, how chemosensory and mechanosensory pathways interact to elicit collective behaviors (2).

Ben Lehner received the EMBO Gold Medal 2016 for his contributions to understanding the origins of phenotypic diversity in development and evolution. People differ from each other and this is, according to textbook knowledge, due to differences in genetics as well as environment. However, working with the roundworm C. elegans, Ben Lehner discovered another player in the game. Genetically identical worms grown in the same environment may nonetheless not look identical. He showed that this can be explained by stochastic variances in gene expression early in development (3). Extrapolating to humans, this means that it may not be possible to predict disease outcomes from genome analysis alone. Gene expression levels need to be taken into account.

Ben Lehner then continued on the general theme of genotype-phenotype relations, pursuing a diverse array of questions. "Ben Lehner has impressed the award committee with a very broad research interest, ranging from the genetics of cancer, to evolution, circadian oscillations, and the dynamics of gene expression networks," commented Maria Leptin. Part of his work has focused on the question why different cancers accumulate different mutations. Ben Lehner and his team found that regions of active gene expression have a lower mutation rate due to a repair mechanism that works more efficiently in these regions (4).

    1. Benton et al. (2009). Cell 136(1): 149-162. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2008.12.001

    2. Ramdya et al. (2015) Nature 519(7542): 233-236. doi:10.1038/nature14024.

    3. Burga, Casanova, Lehner (2011). Nature 2011 480(7376):250-3. doi: 10.1038/nature10665

    4. Supek, Lehner (2015). Nature 521(7550): 81-84. doi:10.1038/nature14173

Career stages

Richard Benton obtained his PhD in biology from the University of Cambridge in 2003. During his post-doctoral research at the Rockefeller University, New York, he was supported by EMBO and Helen Hay Whitney Foundation fellowships. In 2007, he started his own research group at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, where he became Associate Professor in 2012. He has received several awards, including the Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology (2009) and is a member of the EMBO Young Investigator Programme.

Ben Lehner received his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2004. He did his post-doctoral research in the group of Andrew Fraser at The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. In 2006, he moved to the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, where he became a group leader at the EMBL-CRG Systems Biology Research Unit. He has been named ICREA (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies) Research Professor in 2009 and AXA Professor of risk prediction in age-related diseases in 2014. He has received, amongst others, the Eppendorf Prize for Young European Investigators (2013) and the Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences (2016) and was named EMBO Young Investigator in 2010.


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