World’s largest science prize – worth $3m

The world’s largest science prize has been awarded to the University of Cambridge professors who developed next-generation DNA sequencing, while two others have earned prizes given to outstanding early-career researchers.

Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman, co-founders of Solexa. Picture: Nathan Pitt / University of Cambridge (47509196)
Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman, co-founders of Solexa. Picture: Nathan Pitt / University of Cambridge (47509196)

Prof Shankar Balasubramanian and Prof David Klenerman, from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, have been awarded the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which they share with Pascal Mayer, from the French company Alphanosos. The prize is worth $3million.

And Prof Suchitra Sebastian, from the Cavendish Laboratory, and Prof Jack Thorne, from the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, have been recognised with the New Horizons Prize, worth $100,000.

Trinity fellow Prof Balasubramanian and Christ’s fellow Prof Klenerman co-invented next generation DNA sequencing (NGS), which has enabled fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing, enabling an organism’s complete DNA make-up to be determined.

Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman in the lab. Picture: Nathan Pitt / University of Cambridge (47509165)
Dr Shankar Balasubramanian and Dr David Klenerman in the lab. Picture: Nathan Pitt / University of Cambridge (47509165)

Having dreamt up the idea over a pint, the pair co-founded Solexa to make the technology available to the world, it was bought and developed by Illumina.

From changing healthcare to enabling the almost immediate identification and characterisation of Covid-19 virus, along with the monitoring of its variants, the impact has been extraordinary,

It has allowed a million-fold improvement in speed and cost when compared to the first sequencing of the human genome.

While in 2000, sequencing of one human genome took more than 10 years and cost more than a billion dollars, today, the human genome can be sequenced in a single day at a cost of less than $1,000. They were awarded the Millennium Technology Prize for the work earlier this year.

Prof Sebastian won the 2022 New Horizons in Physics Prize for high precision electronic and magnetic measurements that have profoundly changed our understanding of high temperature superconductors and unconventional insulators.

Her research seeks to discover exotic quantum phases of matter in complex materials. Her group’s experiments involve tuning the co-operative behaviour of electrons within these materials by subjecting them to extreme conditions, such as low temperature, high applied pressure and intense magnetic field.

Such conditions take materials that are close to behaving like a superconductor – perfect, lossless conductors of electricity – and ‘nudge’ them to transform their behaviour.

“I like to call it quantum alchemy – like turning soot into gold,” said Prof Sebastian. “You can start with a material that doesn’t even conduct electricity, squeeze it under pressure, and discover that it transforms into a superconductor. Going forward, we may also discover new quantum phases of matter that we haven’t even imagined.”

Prof Sebastian is also director of the Cavendish Arts-Science Project, which she founded in 2016. The project questions and explore material and immaterial universes through a dialogue between the arts and sciences.

“Being awarded the New Horizons Prize is incredibly encouraging, uplifting and joyous,” said Sebastian. “It recognises a discovery made by our team of electrons doing what they’re not supposed to do. It’s gone from the moment of elation and disbelief at the discovery, and then trying to follow it through, when no one else quite thinks it’s possible or that it could be happening. It’s been an incredible journey, and having it recognised in this way is incredibly rewarding.”

Prof Thorne earned the 2022 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize for transformative contributions to diverse areas of algebraic number theory, and in particular for the proof, in collaboration with James Newton, of the automorphy of all symmetric powers of a holomorphic modular newform.

A number theorist in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, he has been working on one of the most significant open problems in mathematics – the Riemann Hypothesis, which concerns Riemann’s zeta function.

The zeta function is intimately related to questions on the statistical distribution of prime numbers – such as how many prime numbers there are and how closely they can be found on the number line.

“I am deeply honoured to be awarded the New Horizons Prize for my work in number theory,” said Prof Thorne. “Number theory is a subject with a rich history in Cambridge and I feel very fortunate to be able to make my own contribution to this tradition.”

The Breakthrough Prize recognises the world’s top scientists and has been running for 10 years. It is presented in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics (one per year) and mathematics (one per year).

Up to three New Horizons in Physics Prizes, up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes and up to three Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes are given out to early-career researchers each year.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.

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Dreamt up over a pint at the Panton Arms: Cambridge chemists tell astonishing story of DNA sequencing after 1m euro prize

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