Proteomics pioneers Ruedi Aebersold and Matthias Mann receive the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics 2024

Proteomics pioniers Ruedi Aebersold en Matthias Mann ontvangen de Dr. H.P. Heinekenprijs voor de Biochemie en Biofysica 2024
Foto: Matthias Mann (l), hoogleraar aan het Max Planck-instituut voor Biochemie in Duitsland en Ruedi Aebersold (r), emeritus hoogleraar aan de technische universiteit ETH Zürich in Zwitserland

Biochemists Ruedi Aebersold and Matthias Mann have been awarded the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics 2024. The jury praises their pioneering work in the field of proteomics and in particular their contributions to new techniques to study large amounts of proteins simultaneously. Thanks to their achievements, we better understand how healthy cells work and what goes wrong in disease. Both Aebersold and Mann are recipients of the Bijvoet Medal, and Mann was awarded an honorary doctorate by Utrecht University in 2004. 

In 2024, it will be 60 years since Alfred Heineken created the very first Heineken Prize: the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics. To mark this special anniversary edition, the jury has decided to award the prize to not one but two top scientists. By doing so, the jury not only honours the work of Aebersold and Mann, but also the field of proteomics.

Jury: “Aebersold and Mann revolutionised the way scientists research proteins today”

Drivers of proteomics

Proteins are involved in all processes in the body. Without proteins there is no cell division, metabolism or growth. For a long time, it was thought that each protein performs one specific function. We now know that biology is much more complex. It turns out, for instance, that one protein cooperates with many different proteins to perform various functions. So to understand how processes work in our body, it is not only necessary to identify the proteins but also to uncover their interactions. Large-scale research into proteins is called proteomics.

Ruedi Aebersold, professor emeritus at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, and Matthias Mann, professor at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Germany, are, according to the jury, the drivers of this field. Their work has made essential contributions to the identification and analysis of proteins and offered new insights into how they interact. In the process, both scientists have developed new, innovative techniques that, among other things, have enabled accurate, quantitative measurements of thousands of proteins simultaneously. A method that has become a standard in the research field.

Although the two biochemists have largely followed their own paths in recent decades, they have benefited greatly from each other's work. Moreover, they share a common goal: to map the collaborations between all 5 to 10 billion proteins in a cell.

Applicability in medicine

Thanks to Aebersold and Mann's contributions, we increasingly understand how healthy cells work and what goes wrong in disease. For example, we can now spot certain diseases early, such as liver disease. When people are developing this disease, protein amounts in their blood change. By detecting this early, they can change their lifestyle and avoid getting sick. Another important medical application is Mann's research into allergic skin reactions to drugs. By studying patients' affected skin cells, he found out the cause and thus laid the basis for treatment. He is currently analysing the differences in the interactions between proteins in cancer cells and normal cells within one patient. An approach that could lead to personalised tumour treatments in the near future.

Jury: “Thanks to Aebersold and Mann's contributions, we better understand how the human body works and what goes wrong in disease”

Key milestones over the years

Aebersold was one of the first to realise that to understand biological processes we need to study not genes, but proteins; the actual workhorses in our cells. In doing so, he was an important advocate of large-scale protein research. For instance, he emphasised that a protein never operates alone, but is always part of a larger network.

To understand how proteins work together, however, you first need to know which proteins are present in the cell. One of the main techniques used to investigate this is mass spectrometry. This measures the masses of protein fragments. With this information, you can figure out which protein you are dealing with. Mann was the first to develop an algorithm that could do this. Thanks to this algorithm, many important proteins have been discovered. In doing so, Mann made a crucial contribution to the analysis of proteins in living systems. He did this together with his supervisor and inspiration, John Fen, who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2002.

Aebersold also made some essential technical contributions within mass spectrometry. For instance, he made mass spectrometry suitable for very targeted and accurate comparison of the protein composition of different cells. This allows mapping which processes are disturbed in a cell during disease.  To apply this method optimally, Mann developed a mass spectrometer especially for this technique. By joining forces, they developed a method that today almost everyone in the research field uses.

About Ruedi Aebersold

Ruedi Aebersold (1954, Oberdiessbach) studied cellular biology at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where he also obtained a PhD in cellular biology. After two postdoctoral positions at the California Institute of Technology, he was appointed associate professor at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver in 1989. In 1993, he moved to Seattle, where he was appointed professor of molecular biotechnology at the University of Washington in 1998. In 2000, he co-founded the world's first Institute of Systems Biology. In 2004, he moved back to Switzerland and became professor of systems biology at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland. He was awarded a Bijvoet Medal by Utrecht University's Bijvoet Centre for Biomolecular Research in 2018.

About Matthias Mann

Matthias Mann (1959, Thuine) studied physics and mathematics at Georg August University in Germany. In 1988, he received his PhD in chemical engineering from Yale University in the United States. After a postdoctoral position at the Southern Danish University, he became group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg in 1992. In 1998, he was appointed professor of bioinformatics at the Southern Danish University, and since 2005 he has been director of the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried. Since 2007, he has also been director of the proteomics programme at the University of Copenhagen. In 2004, Mann was awarded an honorary doctorate at Utrecht University. Four years later, in 2008, he won a Bijvoet Medal awarded by the Bijvoet Centre for Biomolecular Research.

About the Heineken Prizes

The Heineken Prizes are the Netherlands' largest international science awards. In 2024, the 60th anniversary edition will take place with a special focus on the prize it once started with: the Dr H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics. In 1964, Alfred Heineken established the prize in honour of the 77th birthday of his father, Henry Pierre Heineken, a trained biochemist.

This edition will also feature the Heineken Young Scientists Awards. An initiative by Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken to honour young scientific talent. The Awards go to four promising young researchers, working at a Dutch research institute, whose outstanding work sets an example for other young scientists. An independent jury was formed for both awards, which was responsible for the nomination and selection process. For more information, go to: