Winners of the 2004 EU Descartes Prizes

December 6, 2004

Brussels, 2 December 2004

The 2004 Descartes Prize ceremony takes place on 2 December in Prague Castle, hosted by the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus. This background note gives details of the winners of the 2 prizes.

The 2004 EU Descartes Prize for Research

  • Secrets of degenerative diseases and ageing revealed in the mitochondria - Field of research: Life Sciences
  • Most people would like to ensure longer healthy lives. That is the intriguing long-term possibility that is a result of exciting research findings at five partner institutions across the European Union. The research is specifically investigating the role played by a particular type of DNA, the mitochondrial DNA, in causing ageing and disease. Such knowledge about mitochondrial DNA could in the future translate into therapies that provide tangible healthcare benefits.

    A widely accepted theory of ageing has been that, over time, the body accumulates genetic mutations that build up to such an extent that they eventually overwhelm our cells’ capacity to correct them. Such mutations are then proposed to lead to many of the degenerative changes that characterise old age and, ultimately, death. It has been known for several years that inherited mutations in mitochondrial DNA can cause a variety of diseases.

    Mitochondria are structures which produce energy within the body’s cells, enabling them to function, repair damage and maintain themselves. When mitochondria age, the human body loses its ability to remain young and healthy. Based on their knowledge of mitochondrial ageing and its consequences, researchers believe that by protecting and restoring mitochondrial function we could prevent premature ageing.

    The MBAD research group, short for Mitochondrial Biogenesis, Ageing and Disease is investigating the genes of Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA for short. mtDNA contains 37 genes involved in these processes. Unlike other DNA, it is inherited only from the mother.

    The early work of MBAD partners Dr. Ian Holt, now with the UK Medical Research Council, Dr Massimo Zeviani of the Istituto Nazionale Neurologico ‘Carlo Besta’, Milan and Dr Pierre Rustin, INSERM, Paris, during the late 1980s, revealed mutations in mtDNA as the cause of a group of relatively rare, neuromuscular and neurological diseases.

    Later, as pioneered by Dr. Zeviani, it became clear that mutations in many nuclear genes could also produce similar diseases, by affecting the faithful duplication and/or repair of mtDNA. In the early 1990s, Prof. Howy Jacobs now based at the University of Tampere, Finland, and the overall co-ordinator of the MBAD group, was one of several researchers who contributed to the realisation that mtDNA mutations are actually involved in a much wider spectrum of diseases, including rather common conditions such as inherited deafness. In retrospect this is not very surprising, given the central importance of mitochondria in energy production. These findings spurred the group to widen its interests, and consider the genetic status of mtDNA as a global element in human health.

    The situation today is that scores of different mtDNA mutations, plus an increasing number of nuclear disease genes affecting mtDNA, have now been identified as the causes of numerous disorders. These most commonly manifest themselves in tissues which are highly dependent on biological energy, such as the brain, heart, muscles, as well as secretory and sensory organs – in particular the eye and inner ear. The list of diseases due to mtDNA mutations now includes encephalopathy, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, diabetes, infertility, heart failure, other muscular weaknesses and paralysis and a subset of cancers.

    To promote this research effort, Prof. Jacobs established a series of scientific collaborations involving many institutions, which received support under the EU’s 3rd and 5th Framework Programmes for research. This resulted in major progress in mapping, identifying and determining the functions of key nuclear genes that are involved in faithfully maintaining mtDNA, expressing the functions that it encodes, and regulating energy metabolism. It has also created so-called ‘mouse models’, which can be used to elucidate the pathogenic mechanisms underlying mitochondrial disease processes and test out therapeutic strategies. This has been a major contribution of Dr Nils-Göran Larsson of Karolinska Institutet, and Dr Zeviani.

    The work will continue in the format of the FP6 Integrated Project, EUMITOCOMBAT, which aims to translate knowledge about the role of mtDNA in ageing and disease into strategies for therapy. Indeed, the first drug-trials to combat mitochondrial disease are already in progress, under the supervision of MBAD partner Dr Rustin.

    Project Title: MBAD – Mitochondrial Biogenesis, Ageing and Disease

    Project teams – Contact persons: Prof. Howy Jacobs, University of Tampere (Finland), Prof. Nils-Göran Larsson, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), Dr. Ian Holt, Medical Research Council (UK), Dr. Massimo Zeviani, Istituto Nazionale Neurologico “Carlo Besta” (Italy), Dr. Pierre Rustin, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (France).


  • From quantum teleportation to secure communication - Field of research: Physics
  • A joint EU and US team is developing a global communication system, using particles of light, which can provide a more secure infra-structure for e-business. Technology called “quantum cryptography” forms the basis of the new system. In this system security ‘keys’ are assigned to legitimate correspondents in a random manner, making it virtually impossible to interfere with online communications.

    Information and communication technologies have transformed our world. The Internet provides tremendous opportunities for economic and social development on a global scale. The Internet has become a key medium for communicating information and ideas and conducting business. It has promoted education and facilitated scientific advancements through sharing of research. In the last 35 years it has changed the way we live, learn, and work. And it will continue to transform our lives. Confidence in the security and stability of the Internet is essential if the economic and social potential of the Internet is to be achieved. The internet is now facing a major challenge from “hackers” that wish to undermine the public’s trust in it.

    Quantum physicists believe they might have an answer. They are working on developing an entirely novel communication system, which is based on the transfer of particles of light which will be harder to “hack” than the internet. In a joint European and US research project, called the IST-QuComm project, researchers are working on a number of intriguing applications of quantum physics: from teleportation to the secure transmission of encrypted information over fibre optical cable links and through free space. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a new global network for secure communications.

    The transatlantic research consortium is made up of research partners from Sweden, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, the UK, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US. The Consortium has sought in particular to exploit a phenomenon called “quantum entanglement” using light. Light particles, or photons, can be linked together as twins, triplets, or even larger groups. When that happens they are said to be entangled. Even when such entangled photons are separated modification of one of them automatically causes its remote entanglement counterpart to assume the same properties. Quantum teleportation involves "entangling" two particles so that any change to the state of one also occurs instantly in its twin, wherever it may be.

    The IST-QuComm collaboration developed the first four entanglement quantum cryptography systems the world has ever seen. The research group operating from Vienna have already succeed in the transmission of entangled photons, through free space, from a send station to two optical receiver sites located 600 metres apart on opposite sides of the River Danube. In addition, the researchers in Geneva were the first to demonstrate quantum teleportation at telecom wavelengths over a 4 km optical fibre cable. “Quantum technologies, such as quantum cryptography, may be one of the ten technologies that change the world,” said team leader Prof. Anders Karlsson.

    Project Title: IST-QuComm

    Project teams – Contact persons: Prof. Anders Karlsson, Kungl Tekniska Hogskolan (Sweden), Prof. Harald Weinfurter, Ludwig-Maximilians Universitat Munchen (Germany), Prof. Anton Zeilinger, Universitat Wien (Austria), Prof. Artur Ekert, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge (UK), Prof. Nicolas Gisin, University of Geneva (Switzerland), Dr. Richard Hughes, Los Alamos National Laboratory (US), Dr. Thierry Debuisschert, Thales (France), and Prof. John G Rarity, QinetiQ and University of Bristol (UK).

    Winners of the 2004 EU Descartes Prize for Science Communication:

    1) Confronting the phantoms of the insect world

    Winner of the Trophy for the Best Scientific Film of the Year 2002

    They hate water, have green blood, don’t always need males to reproduce and release an irritating gas to deter potential attackers. These are some of the interesting facts revealed by a French documentary, which investigated the strange world of the stick insect. The French word for stick insect is phasme, or phantom, hence the title of this documentary: ‘Face à phasme’. Certainly these creatures are often hidden like phantoms as they are masters of disguise, blending in with surroundings to avoid predators.

    The programme, part of a long-running series of half-hour scientific programmes called C’est pas sorcier (It’s not witchcraft), also revealed that these creatures can stay still for hours, and even sway in the wind like the branches they use as cover. What’s more, they lay eggs that resemble small grains, so that they do not look like a snack to reptiles. The documentary was crammed with useful facts and interesting tips about the 2,500 known species of stick insects, found primarily in tropical parts of the world. The programme was applauded for its rigour, clarity, illustrations and excellent documentation, saying that its varied style, imagination, humour and rhythm meant the attention of the audience never wavered.

    Description: Face à phasme by producer Vincent Lamy (RIFF Production) from the series C’est Pas Sorcier; Category: Scientific television/radio programme; Submitted by: AMIF-Sciences; Website: http:///

    2) Taking composites for a spin around Europe

    Winner of the 2003 Special JEC Award

    Composite materials, which are combinations of known materials, are stronger, lighter and less damaging to the environment, but how much do we know about them? The answer for most of us is not very much, and this is the reason why renowned scientist, Ignaas Verpoest, the professor of metallurgical and material engineering at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven (BE) decided he should address the issue. Composites are already all around us and can be found in lightweight, and therefore high performance, bicycles and cars, as well as in space-age components. The most well known composite materials are carbon fibre composites, which can achieve a stiffness and strength that can be double that of steel, yet only a quarter of its density. Another important strength of composites is that compared to more traditional materials like steel, their impact on the environment is much lower when you take the full life-cycle of a composite into account. Their absence of corrosion and less energy-intensive recycling process are prominent examples.

    Professor Verpoest hit upon the idea of ‘composites-on-tour’, a mobile exhibition that would travel around Europe and raise awareness about these new advanced materials. “The project intends to demystify science and the scientist” says Verpoest. The idea proved successful and it visited eight countries and 40 cities during 2002. It drew a massive 30 000 visitors and distributed more than 100 000 folders, posters, leaflets and invitations. The VIZO design museum hosted a special exhibition – which pulled in over 25 000 guests – tracing the history of the use of composites in consumer goods and design products. In connection, the organisers published ‘From bakelite to composite’, a colourful 200-page book on the history of composites.

    Description: Composites-on-tour by Prof. Ignaas Verpoest; Category: Innovative action for science communication; Submitted by: JEC; Website:

    3) Hungry for science: Hungarian students enter the lab

    Winner of the 2003 Award for Communication in the Life Sciences

    At the higher levels of research, women, minorities and people from low-income backgrounds are under-represented. This is true of many countries, including Hungary, but there, one man decided to do something about it. Peter Csermely is a successful molecular researcher, but he is not blind to the realities of life outside the lab. He saw that certain groups of people were not getting a chance to participate in science, and in 1996, he launched a movement to change all this.

    Csermely started with around 100 students, 300 mentors, and 50 high school teachers. Since then, the movement has grown to 5000 students, 700 mentors, and 600 teachers. Since 1996, the Hungarian Research Student Movement has helped 7,000 youngsters find their way into the best scientific teams of the country, where they are treated as equal peers and do real science. In the eight years since its inception the movement has been going from strength to strength. It draws almost double the number of students from one year to the next. Many of the earliest students now have their PhDs and act as mentors themselves or have returned to their high schools where they help organize student research teams. In 2002, it founded a Network of Youth Excellence which promotes collaboration between extra-curricular research movements, organized by the students from 30 countries.

    Description: Network of Youth Excellence by Prof. Peter Csermely; Category: Innovative action for science communication; Submitted by: European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO); Website:

    4) ‘Into people’s hearts’, one scientist’s inspirational motto

    Winner of the 2002 Communicator Award

    Professor Wolfgang M. Heckl is one of those unique breed of scientists that is admired by his scientific peers, and equally by the press and the public for his ability to communicate science and explain complex concepts in an accessible manner. Professor of experimental physics at Ludwig Maximilians University, Germany, this youthful, dynamic personality has achieved widespread renown in his home country through his ability to explain hard science to young and old in a fun, entertaining way. Wolfgang is regularly seen on TV, and in glossy magazines and newspapers seeking to bring science to the people, and down from its elitist ‘ivory tower’.

    Heckl has become a household name in Germany. He has appeared on over 50 television and radio programmes and writes regularly for German newspapers and popular science magazines. Through experience teaching physics and running the Excellence Centre for Nanobiotechnology in Munich, he learned that the best way to explain complex scientific ideas is to make them relevant to the audience. He backs up his definitions with creative examples. Heckl has hundreds of peer-reviewed articles, book contributions, reports and monographs to his name, as well as countless press interviews and citations. He says that imparting the wonders of science, especially to young people, gives him great joy. And he wants to continue developing his communication skills and bringing nanobiotechnology to life using different media to both communicate and involve people in the learning experience.

    Description: Nanotechnologist engaged in communication, Prof. Wolfgang M. Heckl; Category: Professional scientists engaged in science communication to the public; Submitted by: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG); Website:

    5) David Attenborough’s wild life

    Winner of the Royal Society’s 2003 Michael Faraday Prize

    One of the great wildlife film-makers has spoken of how his craft has changed since he captivated British TV viewers with his Zoo Quest series in 1954. Sir David Attenborough has long been a pioneer in the field of wildlife filmmaking, constantly seeking new methods, through new technologies, to present nature scenes that would in the not-too-distant past have been seen only by a handful of human eyes. Some of his broadcasting work has been of enormous help to other scientists, particularly his hands-on filming of natural phenomena never before witnessed in the wild. His 1996 BBC documentary, Attenborough in Paradise, brought the public the first ever footage of Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.

    Whether the film documents plant life, bird habitats, the living planet, mammals, underwater life, or any other one of his nearly 20 major titles, he maintains that any commentary accompanying the images must be scientifically reliable. He spoke when accepting the Royal Society’s 2003 Michael Faraday Prize of how technological advances are bringing the craft of filming wildlife to new levels. For example, the endoscopes used in medicine can be inserted into an animal’s burrow to watch its behaviour discretely, or infra red technology can be used to observe animals at night. Today, technology is better, budgets are bigger and distances travelled take hours instead of weeks, but serious nature filmmakers still follow Sir David Attenborough’s model of beauty, originality and scientific rigour. Though in his 70s now, he is still full of drive and enthusiasm to learn, and continues to be a very active film-maker.

    Description: Sir David Attenborough FRS; Category: Professional scientists engaged in science communication to the public; Submitted by: the Royal Society

    Item source: MEMO/04/281 Date: 02/12/2004

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