Tribute to Jean-Luc Ferrer

The IBS pays tribute to Jean-Luc Ferrer who passed away on April 21st, 2020 in his 55th year, after a long battle against the illness. He was a real pillar of the French CRG lines at ESRF, and an internationally recognized scientist in the field of structural biology.

After graduating from the Ecole Centrale Paris as an engineer in 1987, Jean-Luc Ferrer performed a DEA in Physical Chemistry at the University Paris VI, and in 1990 he obtained his PhD in Physics, which was carried out at the Bruyères-le-Châtel CEA center and focused on the dynamics of a free electron laser spectrum. Following this, Jean-Luc was recruited by the CEA Life Sciences Department at the Grenoble CEA center and joined the Laboratoire de Cristallographie et Cristallogenèse des Protéines (LCCP) directed by Juan Fontecilla-Camps and created by Michel Suscillon as part of the "Protéine 2000" program. This initiative had been taken following the decision to build the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble. At the LCCP, Jean-Luc joined Michel Roth’s team, whose mission was to build the French BM02-D2AM beamline at the ESRF, dedicated for half of its time to protein crystallography. In 1992, the LCCP joined the IBS newly created by Jean-Pierre Ebel. A few years later, Jean-Luc also contributed to the design and construction of the new French CRG beamline dedicated to protein crystallography : BM30A-FIP.

From the very beginning, Jean-Luc Ferrer showed great interest and skills for technical and scientific aspects, sometimes very complex, of beamline construction and protein structure determination. For the latter, he initiated a very fruitful and long-lasting collaboration with Prof. Joseph P. Noel (La Jolla, USA) on the structural biology of phenylpropanoid synthesis in plants. He established collaborations with numerous French and international teams, but also developed his own research themes (consult J-L Ferrer list of publications).

After Michel Roth’s retirement in 2001, Jean-Luc became responsible for the BM30A-FIP beamline. In this position, he always showed great creativity, determination and dynamism to highlight the assets of synchrotron radiation for protein crystallography. He was a pioneer in the automated analysis of diffraction data. In addition, he anticipated the automation of crystallography beamlines and helped develop the first sample loader based on a robotic arm, the CATS robot. Later, he had the idea to use the robot arm directly as a goniometer (the G-ROB robot), which allowed for the first time to diffract crystals in their crystallization plate, paving the way to ’in situ’ crystallography, crucial for the screening of ligands in the context of drug design. He ensured the technology transfer of these various innovations by creating the start-up company NatX-ray in Grenoble and San Diego. As a national platform, the FIP beamline has become over the years an essential equipment for the French and international protein crystallography communities.

Jean-Luc Ferrer has headed the Synchrotron Group (GSY) at the IBS since its creation in 2011. As part of the ESRF-EBS program, which aims to obtain a new, extremely bright X-ray source, he sought and obtained funding for the FIP beamline reconstruction and renovation project in order to provide the best service to the community. He succeeded in driving this beamline project to completion with the launch of BM07-FIP2 next fall when ESRF reopens.

Jean-Luc was a brilliant scientist, but he was also a simple and caring person, always in a good mood. Although reserved, he appreciated social events and was always up for an evening with friends. California was a place in the world where he liked to go and recharge his batteries, close to his family. He especially loved amusement parks, where he always chose the tallest rides. His kindness was sincere and created rare moments.

Jean-Luc Ferrer maintained full professional commitment in spite of his illness, which deserves our greatest respect. His work to develop French structural biology and bring it to the highest international standards will leave a long-lasting impression on our community. The IBS as a whole salute the memory of this brilliant, yet modest, scientist and extend their sincere condolences to his family and loved ones.