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Sir Martin Wood Japan Science Prize Winner 2019: Dr Keiichi Inoue

It was an absolute pleasure to talk to Dr Keiichi Inoue about winning the Sir Martin Wood Prize for Japan, his award-winning research and how he has found his tour around UK universities. Keiichi was awarded the prestigious prize in 2019 but was not able to visit Oxford Instruments to celebrate his achievements until this summer, due to the pandemic. Being able to celebrate these considerable accomplishments together, after the years of disruption and a lack of face-to-face collaboration, feels all the more significant.

Dr Keiichi Inoue (middle) with Prof. Richard Henderson (left) and Prof. Nigel Unwin (right) holding the balsa wood model of the rhodopsin which formed the basis of Prof. Henderson’s Nobel Prize.

You were announced as the winner of the prize in 2019 but due to the pandemic, it was impossible to travel to attend events and conferences. How does it feel to be able to get out to conferences again? 

The COVID-19 period was not all bad, as I was able to focus on my research and think deeply about it. Being able to attend the conference again in person and interact with other researchers is very important for starting new research.

Can you tell us more about the research you submitted? 

Understanding the functional diversity of microbial rhodopsin, a photoreceptor membrane protein. Also, the study of their molecular mechanisms and their application to optogenetics.

Is there a particular part of your research of which you are especially proud? 

I am pleased to say that we could be the first to report the various functional rhodopsins. It is also noteworthy that my research has allowed me to build better molecular tools through a deeper understanding of the mechanisms.

What have you been up to in the years since you submitted your research? Any notable moments? 

During this period, a new machine learning method to predict function from rhodopsin sequences was successfully constructed. We also discovered bestrhodopsin, a giant complex protein of rhodopsin and bestrophin, another type of ion channel.

For the last few days, you have been travelling to universities around the UK to present your research. How have you found this? 

It was really helpful for me, after the difficult circumstances of COVID-19, to have the opportunity to actually interact with British and German researchers and to visit their facilities. In particular, the opportunity to interact with a wide range of researchers, not only in physics, but also in chemistry, structural biology, and neuroscience, was very meaningful in terms of considering future research.

What were the highlights of your trip to Europe and the visits that you did?  

Taking a photograph with Prof. Richard Henderson and Prof. Nigel Unwin with the historical structural model of bacteriorhodopsin which they determined using their cryo-electron microscope in 1975.

Why was the trip so important? 

I have had few opportunities to interact with researchers in the UK in my research on microbial rhodopsin, and it was especially important for me to be able to discuss this with people from a wide range of disciplines.

Any final thoughts? 

This lecture tour is very important for young researchers to establish exchanges with a wide range of researchers, which is normally difficult for them, and is useful for promoting future joint research between Japan and Europe. I sincerely hope that this program will be supported for a long time to come.