Oliver Ernst

Oliver Ernst

Canada Excellence Research Chair in Structural Neurobiology

University of Toronto

“Professor Ernst is an innovator working at the forefront of this fast-paced field. His research promises to mark a major leap forward for structural neurobiologists. In so doing, he will help to make a tangible impact on global society.”

― David Naylor, president, University of Toronto


Before assuming the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Structural Neurobiology, Oliver Ernst was at the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany, from 1995 to 2010. There, he was group leader at the Institute of Medical Physics and Biophysics, and a member of the steering committee of the Collaborative Research Centre 740 (Berlin). In 1993‑94, he was at The Rockefeller University, New York.

Ernst received his doctoral degree in chemistry with a focus on biochemistry from the University of Freiburg, Germany. He has numerous publishing credits in leading international journals, including Nature, Nature Biotechnology and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. He is one of the initiators of the new section "Medical Biophysics" of the German Biophysical Society, and served as an organizer of the international Keystone Symposia conference on G‑protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) and channels in the nervous system. Ernst is also the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair in Neuroscience at the University of Toronto.

Shedding Light on the Inner Workings of Our Nervous System

As Canada’s population ages, our health‑care system is increasingly faced with age‑related neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

As Canada Excellence Research Chair in Structural Neurobiology at the University of Toronto, Oliver Ernst is focusing his research on the receptors involved in nerve cell communication and offering an important opportunity for Canada’s biotechnology industry to create new therapies that enhance the well‑being of patients and reduce the economic burden on their families and the health‑care system.

Nerve cells communicate by releasing chemical messengers that, in turn, activate receptors and channels that receive and transmit the signal into other cells. Human beings have a large family of over 800 different so‑called "G‑protein coupled receptors," controlling bodily functions from vision, heart rate and breathing, to memory and learning.

The advances made by biophysicists and biochemists like Ernst in recent years have allowed researchers to build exact molecular models of these receptors on the atomic scale. Ernst’s research is increasing our understanding of how these receptors work on the molecular level, and is providing insight into their role in the development of neurological and other types of degenerative diseases. Continuing his groundbreaking work on rhodopsin, the light receptor in the eye, Ernst is also leading the way for new experimental strategies that will make it possible to control signal transmission by nerve cell receptors.

Bringing together internationally acclaimed researchers from the University of Toronto’s neuroscience and structural biology departments, Ernst’s research program is the first of its kind in Canada, and is creating a global centre of excellence in structural neurobiology.



Release date

October 11, 2011

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My name is Oliver Ernst. I'm the CERC in Structural Neurobiology at the University of Toronto.

The goal of my research, the cells of our body contain receptors and they serve us to send extra cellular signals like hormones and neurotransmitters. These receptors, also called G-protein-couple receptors (GPCRs), are also important for vision, olfaction and taste.

I'm interested to understand how these GPCRs bind their ligands, how they undergo conformational change and how they stimulate signaling proteins inside of the cell. For this we apply methods from bio‑chemistry biophysics and stuctural biology.

I think the most important achievement is the determination of the structure of opsin. Opsin can combine with the retinal to form rhodopsin, the photo‑receptor in our eyes. We could solve the structure of this protein in its active conformation. And I’m very proud about this achievement of my team.

The University of Toronto has a very strong structural biology and a large community of neuroscientists. It provides a very attractive and stimulating atmosphere for me. I can interact with various scientists on different GPCRs and we can try to understand together how these GPCRs work and how this knowledge can be used to fight different diseases and to understand and fight different diseases.

I should mention in this regard that G-protein couple receptors are very important drug target for the pharmaceutical industry. About 50% of current drugs are acting against GPCRs.

Thank you very much.