2022 Rosalind Franklin Medal and Prize

Professor Martin Howard for fundamental application of concepts from statistical physics to molecular biology, unlocking mechanisms in diverse areas, including cell memory systems, spatiotemporal protein patterning and cell size control.

Award Winner Martin Howard

Professor Martin Howard has been a pioneer in employing techniques from statistical physics in molecular biology. He has successfully fused theoretical methods with long-lasting collaborations with leading experimental biologists to allow the dissection of an exceptionally diverse array of biological mechanisms that are otherwise too complex to unlock by experiments alone. His early work introducing conserved reaction-diffusion models to explain subcellular protein patterning has been widely influential, particularly in the context of the MinCDE proteins in Escherichia coli that determine midcell division positioning. The Min system has since become a paradigm for intracellular organisation and is still heavily investigated. Other work by Howard on protein dynamics has included the first theoretical calculation of how precisely concentration gradients can specify position in the context of morphogens. He has also transformed our understanding of cell memory systems in the field of epigenetics, by introducing the idea of digital memory storage where multicellular organisms can register external changes (e.g. cold temperature) by altering the fraction of cells that make a digital memory switch. His theoretical models of such bistable switching, involving transcription operating to antagonise gene silencing feedbacks have provided a conceptual underpinning for the entire memory field. Howard has also worked on models of resource allocation, where an arithmetic division computation is generated by analogue chemical kinetics. Other work has focused on how temperature is sensed using the temperature sensitivity of growth itself as an indirect thermometer via dilution of a stable protein. He has also proposed a new theory of cell size control in fission yeast via membrane area measurement that accords well with recent experiments. Very recently, he has proposed a completely new framework for how crossover sites are selected in meiosis through a competitive coarsening mechanism, potentially involving phase separation dynamics.

Although he began his career in theoretical physics environments, for the past 15 years he has been based in biology institutes, focusing on introducing physics-based thinking to as wide a community of biologists as possible. This has been achieved through wide collaboration as well as through hundreds of interdisciplinary seminars. He has also served the biological physics community, including as treasurer for the IOP Biological Physics Group. He was the inaugural IOP Tom Duke lecturer in 2014 and is conference chair for the upcoming 2023 Physics of Life meeting in Harrogate.