Ewan Birney and Rolf Apweiler appointed Joint Directors of EMBL-EBI

Ewan Birney and Rolf Apweiler appointed Joint Directors of EMBL-EBI

11 Mar 2015 - 10:22

Dr Ewan Birney and Dr Rolf Apweiler have been appointed Joint Directors of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory – European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) as Professor Dame Janet Thornton steps down after 14 years in post. They will assume their new roles with effect from 1 July 2015.

Drs Birney and Apweiler have both enjoyed long and distinguished careers at EMBL-EBI, and were appointed Joint Associate Directors in 2012. As Joint Directors, they will share responsibility for all aspects of EMBL-EBI, including services, research, training, industry engagement and European coordination. Dr Birney and Professor Thornton will continue to lead their respective research groups.

Professor Iain Mattaj, Director General of EMBL: “It is my pleasure to announce that Ewan Birney and Rolf Apweiler will become Joint Directors of EMBL-EBI this summer. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Janet Thornton as she steps down from the leadership of the institute in June after an outstanding 14 years as its Director. She has led and shaped EMBL-EBI and its activities admirably, as it has become a global leader in bioinformatics. I have worked with Ewan and Rolf for many years and have every confidence in their ability to steer EMBL-EBI in new directions going forward, whilst upholding the high quality of service delivery for which the Institute is so well respected.”

Professor Dame Janet Thornton, Director of EMBL-EBI: “I am delighted that Ewan and Rolf will be taking over the leadership when I step down as Director this summer. They have been sharing key leadership roles since 2007, and we have all seen how their complementary strengths bring tangible benefit to the organisation. Their energy, experience and vision will help us integrate bioinformatics into new translational areas of science. As Joint Directors, they will be uniquely placed to harness the talent of EMBL-EBI’s staff to deliver exceptional outcomes in the life sciences.”

EMBL-EBI, the European hub for big data in biology, is based on the Wellcome Genome Campus near Cambridge in the UK. As part of EMBL, it has a responsibility to collect, annotate, archive and share data from publicly funded life-science experiments with the global scientific community. 

In the 20 years since its founding, EMBL-EBI has grown very rapidly and now handles many petabytes of data via three separate data centres. This growth is due in large part to the falling cost of DNA sequencing.

Dr Ewan Birney: “EMBL-EBI has done extremely well over the past decade thanks to Janet’s excellent leadership, and her ability to build strong, strategic collaborations that benefit everyone. We will continue this work, and build on it to create closer links with our translational partners, in particular in the clinic. This will help bridge the gap between research and practical applications, which is essential for the discovery of new medicines and agricultural improvements. Delivering EMBL-EBI’s public services and ensuring they keep pace with the changing needs of biologists will remain our top priority, and that requires well-developed research and training programmes as well as on-going collaborations with industry.”

Dr Rolf Apweiler: “Janet Thornton is a hard act to follow, but we are confident that our combined leadership will secure EMBL-EBI’s abilities to handle rapid growth and change over the next decade. Our goal will remain to enable science that benefits society through advances in healthcare, the environment and agriculture, and that means bringing forward the institute’s efforts to make bioinformatics more translational.”

About Rolf Apweiler

Dr Apweiler has a PhD in Biology from the University of Heidelberg and joined EMBL in 1987 to work on the Swiss-Prot protein sequence database; he became leader of the Swiss-Prot group at EMBL-EBI in 1994. Dr Apweiler and Dr Birney jointly led the Protein and Nucleotide Data resources at EMBL-EBI from 2007-2012, and were responsible for the delivery of bioinformatics services as Joint Associate Directors from 2012. Rolf Apweiler was and still is actively involved in many international collaborations and initiatives including the Human Proteome Organization (HUPO) Proteomics Standards Initiative (HPSI), which he chaired from 2002-2005. He served on several committees, review panels and advisory boards, including the Nomenclature Committee of IUBMB (the Enzyme Commission), the FlyBase advisory board, the Scientific Committee of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) and the Scientific Advisory Board of the Human Proteome Resource (HPR) program in Sweden. Dr Apweiler served on several journal editorial or advisory boards and has published more than 250 papers and book chapters. He was elected a member of EMBO in 2011 and a fellow of ISCB in 2015. 

About Ewan Birney

Dr Birney played a vital role in annotating the genome sequences of the human, mouse, chicken and several other organisms; this work has had a profound impact on our understanding of genomic biology. He led the analysis group for the ENCODE project, which is defining functional elements in the human genome. His main areas of research include functional genomics, assembly algorithms, statistical methods to analyse genomic information and compression of sequence information. Dr Birney completed his PhD at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute with Richard Durbin in 2000. He received the 2003 Francis Crick Award from the Royal Society, the 2005 Overton Prize from the International Society for Computational Biology and the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Award for contributions in Open Source Bioinformatics, as well as many other prestigious awards. Dr Birney was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014 and received an Honorary Professor of Bioinformatics  from the University of Cambridge in 2015.


EMBL is Europe’s flagship laboratory for the life sciences, with more than 80 independent groups covering the spectrum of molecular biology. EMBL is international, innovative and interdisciplinary – its 1800 employees, from many nations, operate across five sites: the main laboratory in Heidelberg, and outstations in Grenoble; Hamburg; Hinxton, near Cambridge (the European Bioinformatics Institute), and Monterotondo, near Rome. Founded in 1974, EMBL is an inter-governmental organisation funded by public research monies from its member states. The cornerstones of EMBL’s mission are: to perform basic research in molecular biology; to train scientists, students and visitors at all levels; to offer vital services to scientists in the member states; to develop new instruments and methods in the life sciences and actively engage in technology transfer activities, and to integrate European life science research. Around 200 students are enrolled in EMBL’s International PhD programme. Additionally, the Laboratory offers a platform for dialogue with the general public through various science communication activities such as lecture series, visitor programmes and the dissemination of scientific achievements. www.embl.org

EMBL's European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) is a global leader in the storage, analysis and dissemination of large biological datasets, and helps scientists realise the potential of ‘big data’ by enhancing their ability to exploit complex information to make discoveries that benefit mankind. We are a non-profit, intergovernmental organisation funded by EMBL's 21 member states and two associate member states. Our 540 staff hail from 43 countries, and we welcome a regular stream of visiting scientists throughout the year. We are located on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Hinxton, Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Contact the news team

Oana Stroe
Communications Officer
+44 (0)1223 494 369

Subscribe to the e-mail newsletter
Get a monthly round-up of the hottest news and features from EMBL, straight to your inbox.
Or stay updated with the RSS feed (EMBL-EBI only).