Since its beginnings almost half a century ago, gene sequencing has become indispensable for basic biological research. Thanks to new techniques, tens of thousands of genomes have been sequenced to this day, including the human genome. Traditionally, the process relied on analyzing dozens of DNA fragments in individual reactions. Shankar Balasubramanian, the Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and his colleague David Klenerman co-invented a method that allowed them to analyze several billion DNA strands at the same time with a color-coded approach. At Falling Walls, Balasubramanian shows how he and the Solexa-Illumina team made the process of gene sequencing a million times faster, while at the same time reducing the cost to under $1,000. This has key impacts in the fields of environmental sciences, crop sciences, bioenergy, as well as in personalized medicine, paediatrics and oncology.
Sir Shankar Balasubramanian is the Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and senior group leader at the Cambridge Institute. He works on the chemistry, structure and function of nucleic acids. He co-invented the leading next generation DNA sequencing methodology that has made routine, accurate, low-cost sequencing of human genomes a reality. He’s invented chemistry to decode several modified (epigenetic) DNA bases and DNA secondary structures (G-quadruplexes) in the genome and made seminal contributions towards the understanding of their dynamics and function. His work on small molecule recognition of nucleic acids has revealed molecular mechanisms that can be exploited to modulate the biology of cancer. He was knighted in 2017 for his services to science and medicine and awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 2018. In 2021, he was jointly awarded the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize and the 2022 Breakthrough Prize for Life.