Successful explorer of active compounds

Natural product researcher Prof. Dr. Christian Hertweck from Jena receives the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG)

| by Christine Vogler

The natural product researcher Prof. Dr. Christian Hertweck from Jena receives the Leibniz Preis 2015

Nature harbours some of the most effective treatments for diseases – however, identifying and analysing these substances is a major scientific challenge. Prof. Dr. Christian Hertweck is one of the most successful investigators of such biologically active compounds. Prof. Hertweck has held the chair of Natural Product Chemistry at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany since 2006 and at the same time heads the department of Biomolecular Chemistry at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology – Hans Knöll Institute (HKI). For his groundbreaking discoveries and research the 45-year-old scientist has been awarded the most important German research award for the year 2015, as announced today (10.12.) by the German Research Foundation.

Plant diseases are often caused by fungal toxins. Fungi produces these toxins – or so was the general belief, until Christian Hertweck and his team could show for the first time that endosymbiotic bacteria, living within the fungal cells, are able to produce toxins. They could demonstrate that the fungus Rhizopus microsporus, the cause of rice seedling blight, contains endosymbiotic bacteria of the genus Burkholderia which are responsible for the production of the rice toxin rhizoxin.

The discovery of a completely new family of antibiotics produced by bacteria living in an oxygen-free environment by Hertweck and his team came with a sensational bang. Before this point, the scientific community had assumed that due to their limited energy supply these bacteria could only produce substances indispensable to life. The discovery of the new active compound closthioamide disproved this dogma. Closthioamide was only produced after the team recreated the natural living conditions of the bacterium in the laboratory.

These are just two examples of research results generated by the natural product expert that have created a big stir in the scientific community. Altogether, Hertweck has already authored more than 200 publications and also filed 16 patents, because in addition to basic research, he values the transfer of knowledge and scientific applications.

“Christian Hertweck is a world-renowned scientist in the field of natural product research. He combines chemical and biological methods at the highest level. Furthermore, he is one of the many personal “bridges” connecting the Friedrich Schiller University with extra university research institutions”, Prof. Dr. Walter Rosenthal, president of the Friedrich Schiller University, recognizes the achievements of the prize winner.

“Christian Hertweck pioneered the exploitation of the metabolic potential of “neglected” microorganisms and “cryptic” or silent biosynthetic pathways”, states HKI director Prof. Dr. Axel Brakhage. “In addition, he is an internationally distinguished expert in the field of metabolic diversity and the role of natural products as mediators of microbial interactions. Last but not least his groundbreaking discoveries in genome-based natural product research led to his high scientific reputation that also added to the standing of Jena as a city of science.”

Hertweck’s scientific excellence is also reflected in the calls for appointments he has received – and luckily for Jena declined – from the TU Munich and the ETH Zurich, among others. Furthermore, Hertweck is one of the founding members of the graduate school “Jena School for Microbial Communication” (JSMC) at the University of Jena which is funded by the Excellence Initiative of the German federal and state governments. He also initiated the establishment of the Collaborative Research Center “Chemical Mediators in Complex Biosystems” (ChemBioSys) at Friedrich Schiller University together with the chemist Prof. Dr. Georg Pohnert. ChemBioSys brings together an interdisciplinary team to elucidate the chemical interactions of fungi, bacteria, microalgae, plants, animals and human tissues in biosystems.

“I am delighted with the recognition of our work since it suggests: Carry on in this field”, says Hertweck. “And it provides us with the unique chance to explore new routes and start long-term projects with microorganisms that have not been well studied up to now and might be difficult to cultivate. The search for new active compounds means: a lot of basic research with an applied perspective – exactly as intended by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.”

Christian Hertweck