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10 November 2017Big Pharma

LSIPR 50 2017: Richard Henderson—Meet the hands-on scientist

In May 2016, British scientist Richard Henderson was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal from the Royal Society, the independent scientific academy of the UK.

The Copley Medal was first awarded in 1731, following donations from Godfrey Copley, a wealthy English landowner and public figure. The society’s oldest and most prestigious award, it is handed out annually for outstanding achievements in any branch of science. Henderson is a group leader in structural biology at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) at the University of Cambridge, and is a self-confessed “hands-on scientist”.

He was awarded the Copley Medal because of “his fundamental and revolutionary contributions to the development of electron microscopy of biological materials”, according to the society’s website.

Electron microscopy is a process that enables the materials’ atomic structures to be deduced.

Previous winners include Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

“They’ve been giving the Copley Medal for about 350 years so it marks some particular achievement; it is nice to be acknowledged,” says Henderson.

“It’s unlikely to make a lot of difference to my career, but having a Copley Medal, particularly for people who might know about its history and impact, might give me a little bit more influence.

“When I suggest something or give advice on a topic, the people listening might pay slightly more attention than they might do otherwise. The Copley Medal and having some grey hair might also affect my influence,” he explains.

Henderson was the first to solve the structure of bacteriorhodopsin, a light-harvesting protein found in the membrane of single cell Archaea microorganisms, and analysis revealed it was composed of helices.

According to his Royal Society profile: “In collaboration with neuroscientist Nigel Urwin, he uncovered the three-dimensional arrangement of the helices within a bacterial membrane protein by electron microscopy (EM)—pioneering the powerful technique’s use to study biological molecules.” His research allowed scientists to see their structure.

Bacteriorhodopsin, Henderson explains, is a protein which absorbs light and pumps protons across the membrane of a bacterial cell and thereby powers the organism to do all sorts of other tasks.

It is a “protein in the membrane of a bacterium that interfaces from inside the bacterium to the outside world”.

“That was one of the earliest membrane protein structures to be determined,” he says.

To determine the structure, the scientists used a “novel method”—EM—rather than X-ray crystallography, which was the method previously used.

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