2016 HELMHOLTZ PRIZE (award ceremony on 22 June 2016)
Dr. Nicholas A. W. Bell and Dr. Ulrich F. Keyser for their work entitled "Digitally encoded DNA nanostructures for multiplexed, single-molecule protein sensing with nanopores"

2016 Prizewinners: Protein analysis – Special DNA molecules allow simultaneous detection of several different protein molecules

(from left to right) Dr. Nathalie von Siemens, Dr. Nicholas Bell, Dr. Ulrich Keyser, Prof. Dr. Joachim Ullrich

Nicholas A. W. Bell was born in London in 1986. He studied Physics at Jesus College, part of Cambridge University, where he attained his PhD in 2014 in Dr. Ulrich Keyser’s group. He is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University.

Ulrich F. Keyser was born in Braunschweig in 1975. He studied Physics at the Technische Universität Braunschweig and at Leibniz University Hannover. After graduating in Physics in 1999, he obtained his PhD from the University of Hannover in 2002. In 2016, he became Professor of Applied Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, UK.

Decoding genotypes is one of the most spectacular fields of research of biology. The genes in DNA contain the information that is necessary to form proteins. An established method to identify proteins without previously modifying them chemically is based on so-called nanopores. Nanopores are tiny channels in a membrane that have an incredibly small volume of approx. 10-24 m3.

The paper of researchers from Nicholas A. W. Bell's and Ulrich Keyser's team from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University entitled "Digitally encoded DNA nanostructures for multiplexed, single-molecule protein sensing with nanopores" features a groundbreaking innovation. They combined the traditional procedure with a novel detection method. For their work, these researchers were awarded the 2016 Helmholtz Prize, which was endowed with €20 000, in the category of "Precision measurements in applied metrology in the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine".

The scientists elaborated a library of customized, folded DNA molecules (DNA origami) that are able to bind exactly one protein to themselves by means of a molecular bar code. The proteins bound in this manner can then be identified with 94 % certainty with the aid of electric measurement methods. This new procedure is not only highly selective, but also allows for the first time four different proteins to be identified at the same time.

Producing nanopores for this new procedure is much easier than for traditional procedures, since nanopores can be used universally and no longer have to be adapted to each of the proteins to be identified. This new detection method works on a purely electrical basis and is therefore ideal for miniaturizing. It would be conceivable to use this new method in lab-on-a-chip systems or as portable sensors – basically as a pocket-sized method for protein analysis.


N. A. W. Bell and U. F. Keyser: Digitally encoded DNA nanostructures for multiplexed, single-molecule protein sensing with nanopores. Nature Nanotechnology 11, (2016), 645, http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2016.50