Distinction for research project: how bacteria fend off viruses

12 Sept 2023

Microbiologist Rotem Sorek has received the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award, worth 1.5 million euros, for a joint project with LMU’s Gene Center Munich and the HIRI institute in Würzburg.

Defense against pathogens and dangerous foreign substances is essential for all life forms. Humans and other complex life forms have consequently developed a comprehensive immune system out of a network of defense mechanisms during the course of evolution. Bacteria, too, possess mechanisms that they use to defend themselves against the viruses that attack them (phages). This includes the well-known CRISPR/Cas system, which genetic engineering exploits and further develops in the form of so-called gene scissors.

Identifying defense strategies of immune system

© Weizmann Institute of Science

Professor Rotem Sorek from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has discovered that the defense mechanisms in bacteria extend far beyond the CRISPR/Cas system. Inside the genetic material of thousands of different bacteria, he systematically searched for anti-phage defense systems and, in so doing, discovered a variety of defense mechanisms that function like an immune system for the protection of the bacteria. For these research achievements, Sorek is now being awarded with the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award 2023.

The research award, which is endowed with 1.5 million euros in prize money, enables excellent scientists from outside of Germany to conduct a research project in Germany. Partnering with Professor Veit Hornung from LMU’s Gene Center Munich and Jörg Vogel from the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI) in Würzburg, Rotem Sorek will investigate key mechanisms of bacterial and human immune systems. Together, the researchers intend to identify hitherto unknown antiviral defense strategies of the human immune system with the help of bacterial anti-phage defense mechanisms, which could be used in new therapies for treating infections.

Searching for common denominators

LMU immunologist Veit Hornung studies the innate immune system in humans. He is particularly interested in the question as to how these defense mechanisms distinguish between the body’s own and foreign structures. “We’re delighted to welcome Rotem Sorek to the Gene Center Munich as the winner of the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award,” says Hornung. “His groundbreaking work on the antiviral defense mechanisms of bacteria has greatly enriched our understanding of immunology. Thanks to Sorek’s work, we now know that the bacterial immune system is the evolutionary origin of important components of the human innate immune system – a discovery that can also provide deeper insights into the complexity of the human immune system.” To this end, the researchers plan to investigate the similarities and differences in the defense mechanisms of bacteria and humans and to find potential common denominators.

Rotem Sorek obtained his doctorate in human genetics at the University of Tel Aviv and then undertook a research residency at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2008, he joined the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, where he is currently Professor of Molecular Genetics.

About the award

The Max Planck Society and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation present the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award to a researcher from outside of Germany. In addition to 1.5 million euros in research funding, the award comes with a personal bursary of 80,000 euros.

The focus is on personalities whose work is characterized by outstanding potential for the future. In particular, the prize is intended to attract highly innovative scientists working abroad to spend a fixed period of time at a German higher education institution or research facility. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) provides the funding for the award, which alternates each year between the natural and engineering sciences, the life sciences, and the humanities and social sciences.

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