Patrick Cramer, of German nationality, is awarded the 2021 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine for providing an understanding of the structural and biochemical aspects of gene transcription in eukaryotic cells.
Born in 1969, Patrick Cramer studied chemistry at Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Bristol and Cambridge, and carried out his Ph.D. at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Grenoble. From 1999 until 2001 Cramer worked as a postdoctoral researcher with the later Nobel laureate Roger Kornberg at Stanford University. He became a professor of biochemistry at the University of Munich in 2001 and served as Director of the Gene Center Munich from 2004 to 2013. Since 2014, he has been Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.
In 2009 Patrick Cramer was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and to the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. In 2020 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, USA. Throughout his career, he has been honoured with awards and recognitions, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize and, most recently, the Otto Warburg Medal.
A molecular movie of gene transcription
During the complex process of transcription, cells make copies of their genes in the form of RNA molecules. These RNA molecules then serve as instructions for building proteins – the tools of living cells. The copying process, from DNA to RNA, starts with the recruitment of an RNA polymerase complex to a gene and is followed by a set of successive steps: initiation, elongation, and termination. RNA polymerases, the molecular machines in our cells, associate with many other proteins to control which gene is transcribed at any specific time. This timely and precise regulation of gene transcription is essential for the development of organisms and the maintenance of healthy cells.
Patrick Cramer and his team are investigating how RNA polymerase machines are structured. They also want to understand how polymerases work and how they are controlled. They have deciphered the three-dimensional structure of RNA polymerase II and showed how it is controlled by a large number of cellular factors. His research group was able to clarify in detail how transcription is regulated and make it visible in a video, now widely used in teaching.
In diseases such as cancer, transcription is strongly activated, enabling the disease’s uncontrolled cell growth. Cramer’s team has described how genes are switched on in human cells by factors that convert the copying machine into a highly active form. Recently, Cramer also described the polymerase that the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 uses to copy its genome. His work provides a framework for investigating and controlling gene regulation, which governs cell differentiation, development, and diseases.