Christian Bell

Graduate Research Prize Winners 2012


I grew up in Dortmund, Germany, and completed my bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry at the nearby Ruhr-University in Bochum. During this time I also finished my first research project on the expression and characterization of a small GTPase at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund. This early experience sparked my great interest in protein science and in particular structural biology and set the path for my further studies. I went on to do my master’s, again at the Ruhr-University in Bochum, while at the same time being employed as graduate research assistant in the department of Alfred Wittinghofer. Despite providing a world-class research environment in both scientific knowledge and equipment, the Max Planck Institute was still basically next door to where I grew up and I felt the need to go abroad. Thus, I started my master’s thesis in Ian Wilson’s group at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. In addition to surfing during lunch breaks and BBQs at the beach I was also able to solve my first protein structure, the complex of an anti-HIV antibody with its respective epitope peptide. After completing the master’s, I then decided to leave sunny California and move to Oxford to start my DPhil.

Within the Wellcome Trust Programme for Structural Biology I completed three different projects that were all related to the general topic of chemotaxis. Chemotaxis, the ability of a cell to change its motility as a response to environmental stimuli, is an important signal transduction mechanisms and can be found in all kingdoms of life. During my DPhil I could determine the key factors for specificity in one of the bacterial chemotaxis pathways, two component signaling. A single amino acid residue is sufficient for recognition of two cognate signaling proteins while at the same time avoiding cross-talk with other regulatory pathways. This study was done under the supervision of Professors Judy Armitage and Dave Stuart and in collaboration between the Department of Biochemistry and the Division for Structural Biology (Strubi). One example for eukaryotic chemotaxis is axon guidance. Investigating how proteins can influence neurite guidance cues, in particular in the Plexin-Semaphorin and Rgm-Neogenin receptor-ligand families constituted the other part of my DPhil. These studies showed that in both pathways ligand binding leads to clustering of receptor molecules. This then activates intracellular pathways leading to a change in cellular motility. These studies were performed at Strubi under the supervision of Professor Yvonne Jones and Dr Christian Siebold. In all cases I had the chance to learn to combine X-ray crystallography with other biophysical methods, like surface plasmon resonance or analytical ultracentrifugation.

Outside the lab I loved to row for my college, Wolfson, and enjoyed the fantastic socializing opportunities. I finished my DPhil in 2011 and am now heading a development team in a large, swiss-based pharma company.