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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
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Published: 14.09.2006, 06:00
Modified: 13.09.2006, 10:59
Marcel Benoist Prize 2006 for ETH Professor Tim Richmond
Tenacity rewarded

The molecular biologist Timothy J. Richmond receives the Marcel Benoist Prize 2006. He has devoted 18 years of his life as a researcher to elucidating the structure of nucleosomes. A perfect example of how tenacious, creative research work achieves its goal.

Peter Rüegg

Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin held a reception in Bern on Thursday 7 September 2006 for the winner of this year’s Marcel Benoist prize: the ETH Professor for the X-ray Crystallography of Biological Macromolecules, Timothy J. Richmond. The American scientist, who has taught and researched at ETH since 1987, is awarded the honour for his contribution to elucidating the structure of nucleosomes, the basic building blocks of chromosomes. (1)

Couchepin, who is Chairman of the Marcel Benoist Foundation, entertained Timothy J. Richmond at lunch in Bern to mark the announcement. Other members of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation, ETH President Ernst Hafen and various media representatives attended the reception. The official prize-giving ceremony will take place at ETH tomorrow, 15 September 2006 in the context of the 5th NCCR Congress on Structural Biology. (2)

Pursuing the right idea

In a short speech, Pascal Couchepin praised Richmond’s tenacity and imaginativeness. He said the researcher had shown great stamina and had always believed in his ideas, and ultimately these had also proved correct. Timothy Richmond said he felt honoured. However, he said modestly that the elucidation of the structure of nucleosomes was only an intermediate step. Research into these structures was still incomplete. He said science was like mountain climbing. When one peak had been conquered, the next was waiting behind it. He and his team are now researching the structures of the next organisation level of nucleosomes.

Marcel Benoist Prize: the "Swiss Nobel Prize"

Every year since 1920 the Marcel Benoist Prize (3) has been awarded to a scientist working in Switzerland who has made “the most useful scientific invention, discovery or study, in particular one that is of significance for human life." This is how Marcel Benoist, a French lawyer who died in 1918, recorded it in his will. The prize is Switzerland’s oldest science prize and is held in high regard. Its administration is closely linked to the Federal Government, which is why the current Head of the Swiss Federal Ministry of Home Affairs is Chairman of the Marcel Benoist Foundation and presents the prize each autumn. At the moment this is Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin. The Foundation redefines the value of the prize each year based on the investment income. Up to now it has been awarded 17 times to a total of 19 ETH Zurich researchers, most recently in 2000 to the chemist Dieter Seebach. The Marcel Benoist prizewinners from ETH also include Kurt Wüthrich (1991) and Richard Ernst (1985), who both subsequently also won the Nobel Prize.


ETH President Ernst Hafen (l.) and Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin (r.) in conversation with Timothy J. Richmond, this year’s Marcel Benoist prizewinner. large

An outstanding basis created

Despite all the researcher’s modesty, his structural analyses are regarded as exceptional. They really create the basis for an analysis of the functioning of nucleosomes at an atomic level. The discoveries about their structure are so fundamental that they have been incorporated into biology textbooks.

The structural analyses are based on the X-ray diffraction technique. This involves passing X-rays through a crystal lattice where they are deflected and generate a specific pattern. Scientists draw conclusions about the crystal structure from this. However, large molecular structures are very difficult to crystallise.

Research as unspectacular and backbreaking labour

Richmond worked for thirteen years before achieving success with the nucleosome. Obtaining homogeneous nucleosomes from living cells is a particularly difficult problem. This is because they are not rigid immutable structures. Their components interact with their surroundings constantly in order to ensure the functioning of a cell. However, X-ray structural analysis needs crystals of suitable quality and size.

Richmond avoided this problem by building copies of nucleosomes in his laboratory from homogeneous components consisting of artificial DNA and histones prepared by genetic engineering. However, the fact that a great deal of astuteness and persistence lay behind his research remained largely unrecognised, since there was often a lack of results that would have been publishable in major scientific journals. Nevertheless he himself never gave up, nor were his sponsors discouraged from financing the research. Richmond stressed that ETH in particular had never refused him their support.

Building and upgrading infrastructure is decisive

Building up an appropriate specialised infrastructure also made a decisive contribution to the success. To analyse complex macromolecules it is necessary to be able to generate X-rays of unusually high intensity and quality. This is why for about 20 years Richmond and his team have used synchrotron radiation of the kind that can now also be generated at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen. Richmond said that the SLS (Swiss Light Source) was among the world’s best instruments and had advanced the work greatly. His team works with the SLS at least once a month.

(1) Website of Richmond’s team:
(2) Congress program:
(3) Information about the Marcel Benoist Prize:

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