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Professor Dame Janet Thornton FRS

European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge, UK

Living Systems Institute Honorary Professor

‘I loved the understanding and rigorous approaches employed in physics, but my real interests lay in understanding biology and life. I found my niche.’


After graduating in Physics, I studied for my PhD in Biophysics at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in London. I then moved to Oxford, where I worked in molecular biophysics with David Phillips until 1978, when I returned to the NIMR and, subsequently, to a Fellowship at Birkbeck College, University of London.

In 1990, I was appointed Professor and Director of the Biomolecular Structure and Modelling Unit at University College London, and was later appointed to the Bernal Chair in the Crystallography Department at Birkbeck College. In October 2001, I became Director of the EMBL – European Bioinformatics Institute on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus at Hinxton, near Cambridge. In the same year, I received the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) award.

In 1999, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 2000. In 2002, I was appointed Extraordinary Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge and Honorary Professor, University of Cambridge and in 2003, was elected a Foreign Associate Member of the US National Academy of Sciences. As Director of EMBL-EBI from October 2001 to June 2015, I played a key role in ELIXIR, the pan-European infrastructure for biological data, since its inception.

I combine my research with many advisory roles, including those of Council Member of both the Royal Society and the European Research Council, and in 2012, I became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to bioinformatics.

My research work:

My research is focused on the structure, function and evolution of proteins and how they contribute to disease and ageing. I use novel computational methods to visual and analyse proteins on a molecular level, with the aim of increasing our understanding of how enzymes perform catalysis, how these molecules recognise their appropriate ligands and how proteins and organisms have evolved to create life. My research group also studies the effects of mutations on ageing in model organisms and the potential to use small molecules to modulate ageing.

Throughout my career, I have been involved in developing many of the tools and approaches which are now used worldwide for analysing protein structures and sequences, such as the CATH Protein Structure Classification system for the classification of protein domains.

As Director of the EBI, I was responsible for strategic developments related to the impact of the life sciences data on medical science. My focus remains on pursuing the challenge of how to join up biological and medical data in the UK and building tools which will facilitate the exploitation of these data for research and in the clinic.