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Beyond the sequence: predict inter-individual variations


With his team at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Ben Lehner combines genetic exploration with research into cancer through large-scale experiments, using bioinformatics methods. These approaches enable him to better understand how genetic sequencing results in characteristics that are unique to each individual.

Some people carry a deleterious mutation in their genome without ever developing the associated disease. How can differences in observable characteristics – or phenotype – between individuals be foreseen by sequencing their genomes?
Ben Lehner carries out research into highly fundamental questions regarding the complexity of genetic interactions in yeast and the simple Caenorhabditis elegans worm. He uses the power of genetic databases to draw conclusions on human biology.
He has for example performed pioneering work on genetic interactions naturally present in all organisms. The combined mutations of two genes reveal surprising phenotypes and even death. Pairs of partner genes are not necessarily expressed in all individuals, making it dif¬cult to predict phenotype on the basis of a simple sequence. Supported by the Foundation, this British scientist is set to investigate the origins of these variations in Caenorhabditis elegans. The small size and rapid growth of this worm enable high numbers of conditions to be tested.
When transferred to humans, the results of this research will enable the interaction partners of numerous mutations of cancer cells to be speci¬cally targeted, leading to the development of personalised therapies. Indeed, predictive and personalised medicine as a whole will bene¬t from this new understanding of interactions between genomes, the environment, personal history, parental history and chance.


Ben Lehner became familiar with the methods of computational analysis, which he still uses today, during his Ph.D. studies at Cambridge University. He fell in love with Caenorhabditis elegans when carrying out his postdoctoral research with Andy Fraser, a pioneer in largescale RNA interference screening in the small nematode worm. The model organism provides him with an elegant system for exploring genetic complexity.

The team he has been leading since 2006, re-analysing genomic data published by other researchers using original computational methods, has notably discovered previously unknown reasons for mutation/selection. The team is driving international community progress on several research fronts, including the development of genetic libraries for C. elegans and exploration of random mutation processes in cancer cells. It is now in a privileged position for deciphering the various consequences of these mutations in genetically identical and non-identical individuals.


  • 2004Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge, Hinxton (UK)
  • 2004-2006Postdoctoral fellow under supervision of Dr. Andrew Fraser, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, (UK)
  • Since 2006Group leader in Genetic Systems, Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona (Spain)
  • Since 2009Professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA)
  • 2010EMBO Young Investigator Prize (European Molecular Biology Organisation)
  • 2010FEBS Anniversary Prize (Federation of European Biochemical Societies)
  • 2011City of Barcelona Prize for Science
  • 2012Banco Sabadell Foundation Prize for Biomedical Research
  • 2012Prix Catalonia National Research Award for Young Talent, Catalan Foundation for Research
  • Since 2013Professor of Integrative Biology, Imperial College London (UK) and Professor in the AXA Chair in risk-prediction in age-related diseases
  • 2013Eppendorf/Nature Young European Investigator Award
  • 2016Liliane Bettencourt Prize for Life Sciences
  • 2016EMBO Gold medal winner (European Molecular Biology Organisation)