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Erwin Schrödinger Prize 2017 for Algorithms providing insights into cell development

Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, the ETH Zürich (Department for Biosystems in Basel), the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the EMBL-EBI Hinxton have received the 2017 Erwin Schrödinger Prize. In an interdisciplinary collaboration they have shown how data from individual blood stem cells can be used to determine their fate.

Source: BMBF/Hans-Joachim Rickel

Insights into blood cell differentiation processes are important for a better understanding of autoimmune diseases and leukemia. Scientists often work with cell populations that are expected to be homogenous after they have been sorted in the laboratory. “It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that this view of clearly defined cell types does not adequately describe the biological reality,” states Prof. Dr. Dr. Fabian Theis, Director of the Institute of Computational Biology (ICB) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München and professor at the TUM.

Interdisciplinary analysis of complex networks

Together with Prof. Dr. Timm Schroeder (Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering of ETH Zürich in Basel, previously Helmholtz Zentrum München), Dr. Carsten Marr (ICB), and Dr. Laleh Haghverdi (EMBL-EBI Hixton, previously ICB), Theis developed a number of methods to acquire a better description of cell populations and forecast the fate of individual cells. The team generated accurate single-cell microscopy movies, analyzed genomic or proteomic data from individual cells, and applied algorithms and methods from mathematics and machine learning.

This interdisciplinary approach has already provided spectacular insights into the dynamic heterogeneity of individual blood cells. The scientists have additionally corrected the assumption that two particular transcription factors are responsible for a specific lineage decision. They also found a sequence of gene expression patterns that allow insights into early differentiation processes in blood cells.

“Our work provides important foundations for the Human Cell Atlas,” adds Theis. This international project is intended to compile information on all human cells.

Haghverdi, Marr, Schroeder and Theis received the 2017 Erwin Schrödinger Prize, endowed with 50,000 euros, at the Helmholtz Association’s annual conference on September 14. With this award, the Helmholtz Association and the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, a donors' association for the promotion of humanities and sciences in Germany, honor outstanding scientific or technically innovative achievements in areas bordering on various disciplines in medicine, the natural sciences, and engineering in which representatives of at least two disciplines have participated.

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Further information

The Stifterverband initially put the Helmholtz Association in charge of the Stifterverband Science Award – Erwin Schrödinger Prize for a period of five years. The award comes with prize money of up to 50,000 euros, which recipients are free to use as they please. The award is officially presented at the Helmholtz Annual Meeting and the first award ceremony took place on 25 November 1999. After the initial five-year period was over, the Stifterverband decided to continue awarding the prize in the same form, but at a two-year interval. The Helmholtz Members’ Assembly then agreed to provide the prize money in the intermediary years and the award has been awarded on an annual basis together with the Stifterverband ever since.

Important publications on this topic:

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,500 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 19 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

The Institute of Computational Biology (ICB) develops and applies methods for the model-based description of biological systems, using a data-driven approach by integrating information on multiple scales ranging from single-cell time series to large-scale omics. Given the fast technological advances in molecular biology, the aim is to provide and collaboratively apply innovative tools with experimental groups in order to jointly advance the understanding and treatment of common human diseases. 

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 550 professors, 41,000 students, and 10,000 academic and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

Freedom and individual responsibility, entrepreneurial spirit and open-mindedness: ETH Zurich stands on a bedrock of true Swiss values. Our university for science and technology dates back to the year 1855, when the founders of modern-day Switzerland created it as a centre of innovation and knowledge. At ETH Zurich, students discover an ideal environment for independent thinking, researchers a climate which inspires top performance. Situated in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, ETH Zurich is pioneering effective solutions to the global challenges of today and tomorrow. Some 500 professors teach around 20,000 students – including 4,000 doctoral students – from over 120 countries. Their collective research embraces many disciplines: natural sciences and engineering sciences, architecture, mathematics, system-oriented natural sciences, as well as management and social sciences. The results and innovations produced by ETH researchers are channelled into some of Switzerland’s most high-tech sectors: from computer science through to micro- and nanotechnology and cutting-edge medicine. Every year ETH registers around 90 patents and 200 inventions on average. Since 1996, the university has produced a total of 330 commercial spin-offs. ETH also has an excellent reputation in scientific circles: 21 Nobel laureates have studied, taught or researched here, and in international league tables ETH Zurich regularly ranks as one of the world’s top universities.