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PROMEMO PI Poul Nissen receives the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize for his groundbreaking work in structural biology. The prize was given by HRH the Crown Princess, Minister of Higher Education and Science, Tommy Ahlers, and chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, Flemming Besenbacher, as part of the annual banquet at the New Carlsberg Glyptotek on Sunday 2 September 2018.

Poul Nissen (photo: The Carlsberg Foundation)

Grounds for awarding the prize to Professor Poul Nissen

Professor Poul Nissen is, beyond comparison, the most highly profiled structural biologist in Scandinavia. In 1995, as a PhD student, he already published in Science, on how he had used x-ray crystallography to identify the structure of the protein-RNA-complex which is responsible for placing the amino acids in the correct order on the ribosome that creates the cell protein. Since then, as a postdoc at Yale University, he became one of the driving forces behind the identification of the structure of exactly the ribosome, which translates genetic information for synthesis of protein in all cells. It was, not least, due to this breakthrough that Yale-professor Tom Steitz received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009.

With great success, Poul Nissen has also worked with membrane proteins, which are notoriously difficult to get to form the crystals, or agents, necessary to identify the molecular structures in great detail with x-ray crystallography or electron microscopy. Poul Nissen has published countless highly profiled articles, presenting the structure and mechanism of membrane proteins, not least ion transporters such as the sodium-potassium pump, which was originally discovered by the Danish Nobel Prize winner, Jens Chr. Skou. In the same way, he has studied proteins crucial to neurobiology.

Poul Nissen has an extensive international network, and at Aarhus University he has established a research environment that is internationally recognised and attracts students and researchers of all nationalities. In 2013, Poul Nissen became the driving force behind a Danish centre of "Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine", called DANDRITE. In addition, he is a partner in the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center for Proteins in Memory (PROMEMO) and the Lundbeck Foundation's center BRAINSTRUC.

Poul Nissen has the finger on the scientific pulse and shows a never-failing feeling for the future large challenges in structural biology, molecular biology and neurobiology.

Interview withPoul Nissen:

What do you study?

We study the central life processes in cells based on studies of biomolecular structure, function and mechanisms. In particular, we have used protein crystallographic methods, and today also electron microscopy, where we can establish three-dimensional images of molecular structures down to atomic level. In particular, we study the important ion pumps (P-type ATPases) that maintain high concentration differences of, among other things, sodium, potassium, calcium and copper inside and outside the cell and which include, for example, the sodium potassium pump, discovered by Jens Chr. Skou. In addition, we also study other proteins that transport amino acids and neurotransmitters into the cell. We study how these pump and transport proteins function in brain cells and form a molecular basis for understanding brain functions and diseases.

What are the challenges and perspectives of your research?

The challenges lie in the establishment of images and models for understanding the cells' densely packed molecular universe and thus creating a rational understanding of how all these molecules form an order as the basis for the function of cells and organisms. It is a huge challenge for life sciences to connect the many hierarchical levels from atoms and molecules to larger biomolecular collections, subcellular structures and cells, cellular networks that make tissues and organs, and to actual organisms with deeply complex functions such as awareness, will and memory.

How did you become interested in your research area?

I was an exchange student at Universidad Complutense in Madrid in 1989, where I became very interested in a subject about enzyme structure and function. Later, I took at course in Biostructural Chemistry with Associate Professor Jens Nyborg at Aarhus University, where I was deeply fascinated by protein crystallographic structures of enzymes and their interaction with substrates, inhibitors and, for example, solvent molecules. This direct look at something as small as molecules that could not be seen with your naked eye caught my interest, and Jens Nyborg became my supervisor and mentor.

What does it mean to you to receive the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize?

It is a huge recognition that makes me deeply grateful and proud on behalf of my many wonderful colleagues. I have worked with incredibly many talented young people who have since become very successful. I regard this award as a great acknowledgment of the enormous effort of many people who showed me confidence when I had some new ideas for our research projects.

Private background: family relationships, hobbies etc.

I was born and raised on a farm in Augustenborg, which my grandfather from Schleswig had bought after the reunification of North Schleswig with Denmark in 1920. My mother's family comprises numerous priests and botanists, so I have always appreciated a very mixed and extremely fruitful environment characterised by joy and fascination of nature, spirit and art, political discussions and business, party and seriousness. My wife Marie Louise Jespersen is a chief physician in pathology, and we have two children, Sigrid and Kristian, aged 19 and 18, respectively. I love to spend time in nature and enjoy good moments with family, friends and colleagues.

About the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize

The Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize was instituted in 2011 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of founder J. C. Jacobsen. The objective of the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize is to support active researchers, in Denmark or abroad, who have made vital contributions to basic research and enjoy great scientific recognition. The prize is meant to encourage further research and can be spent, as required, on research stays abroad, field work, equipment or salary for scientific assistance. The prize is awarded on the recommendation of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Each prize amounts to DKK 1 million. From this, DKK 250,000 is a personal gift and DKK 750,000 is for research.

For further information, please contact

Professor Poul Nissen
DANDRITE/Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University, Denmark
pn@mbg.au.dk - +4528992295