Image: Weizmann Institute of Science
For his contributions to a deep understanding of the "immune system" of bacteria, geneticist and molecular biologist Rotem Sorek is awarded the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award 2023. His discoveries show that key components of the human innate immune system evolved from the bacterial immune system, explaining the evolutionary origin of human innate immunity. Sorek is a professor at the Department of Molecular Genetics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He has been a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in the Genetics/Molecular Biology and Cell Biology section since 2022.
Rotem Sorek's team deciphered the molecular mechanisms that bacteria use to fight off infection, which are called the bacterial "immune system". They investigated how bacteria fight against viruses – the so-called phages – that can attack and destroy bacteria. His research led to the realisation that bacteria encode a complex network of over 100 anti-phage immune systems. One of the most significant insights from Sorek's studies is the discovery that key components of the human innate immune system originated in evolution from ancient bacterial systems that protect against phages.
Rotem Sorek studied life sciences and genetics in Tel Aviv, Israel, and obtained a Ph.D. in human genetics from Tel Aviv University in 2007. After a two-year stint as a post-doctoral researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in Berkeley, he joined the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he became an associate professor in 2014 and a full professor at the Department of Molecular Genetics in 2018. At present, Sorek heads the Knell Family Center for Microbiology at the Weizmann Institute. Sorek served as an editorial board member of the journals "BioEssays" (2009 to 2018) and "Cell" (since 2020), as well as an associate editor of the journal "Genome Biology and Evolution" (2014 to 2017). He has already received a number of awards for his research achievements. To name just a few of his most notable awards: the Anniversary Prize of the Federation of the European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) in 2014; the Beutler Research Program Award (2019), the Andre Deloro Prize (2021), the Rappaport Prize (2021), the Landau Prize (2022), the Michael Bruno Memorial Award (2022) and the HFSP Nakasone Award (2023). In addition to the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, of which Sorek became a member in 2022, he is a member of several other scientific academies and professional societies, such as the Young Israel Academy of Sciences (since 2012), the European Academy of Microbiology (since 2015), the European Molecular Biology Organization (since 2016) and the American Academy of Microbiology (since 2018).
The Max Planck Society and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation explicitly bestow their joint research award on outstanding researchers from abroad. Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award replaced the Max Planck Research Award in 2018 and is associated with a personal award of 80,000 euros and endowed with 1.5 million euros for a research stay in Germany. The award is annually alternating between the natural and engineering sciences, the life sciences, and the humanities and social sciences. In 2018, the award already went to a current Leopoldina member when astrophysicist Catherine Heymans was honoured for her research on so-called dark energy.