New therapeutic approaches, microbe wars and new ways of producing active compounds

Medac Research Award 2021

Jena. The pharmaceutical company medac GmbH once again honors groundbreaking research work performed at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology – Hans Knöll Institute (Leibniz-HKI). The award recognizes the successful interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers between multiple groups at the institute. The scientists involved in the selected works share prize money of 20,000 euros.

Questions in the natural sciences are very complex. Therefore, to successfully address these questions, scientists from multiple disciplines usually need to work together. To promote these collaborations, medac GmbH based in Wedel awards the medac Research Award each year to the most successful, team-based research work at the Leibniz-HKI. The scientific advisory board of the institute selects the best papers from the submitted proposals each year. This year, the collaborative teams behind five groundbreaking publications received the medac research award:

Christin Reimer and Johann Kufs, together with their co-authors, succeeded in producing active substances in the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. They created a hybrid enzyme from the cannabis plant and amoeba to produce a precursor of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol. The work was recently published in Nature Biotechnology.

A team led by Amelia Barber and Tongta Sae-Ong defined the genetic diversity of Aspergillus fumigatus. The fungus causes life-threatening infections in humans. The research increased understanding of the differences between genetic lineages and reveals potential new targets for therapies. The study was published in Nature Microbiology.

Mario Krespach and his colleagues investigated how multicellularity occurs in microorganisms. He found that certain toxins produced by bacteria cause the green alga Clamydomonas reinhardtii to assemble into multicellular structures. The results were published in PNAS and also recognized as a "research highlight" in Nature Chemical Biology.

Hannah Büttner and Sarah Niehs also studied chemical warfare in microorganisms. Together with their team, they were able to show that the fungus Mortierella verticillata forms a symbiotic relationship with bacteria whose toxins protect it from a nematode. These results were also published in PNAS.

Lisa Mahler and her team, in turn, set out to find new antibiotic substances in natural microbiological communities. To do this, she has developed a new microfluidic method to cultivate previously unculturable microorganisms using tiny droplets. The work was published in eLife.

Due to the Corona pandemic, no official presentation of the awards could take place as of yet. However, the institute’s Director Axel Brakhage, who is also a professor at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, intends for this event to occur in the future: "We hope that we will be able to honor the prize winners in person this summer in the presence of the CEO of medac GmbH, Heiner Will. The medac Research Award motivates the researchers at the Institute to cooperate in our main research fields and repeatedly leads to outstanding publications. We are therefore very grateful for the long-standing support of medac GmbH. Interdisciplinary cooperation across disciplinary boundaries enables new perspectives and insights. It is a great strength of Leibniz-HKI and of research in Jena in general."

Original Publications

Reimer C, Kufs JE, Rautschek J, Regestein L, Valiante V, Hillmann F (2022) Engineering the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum for biosynthesis of a cannabinoid precursor and other polyketides. Nat Biotechnol, doi: 10.1038/s41587-021-01143-8

Barber AE, Sae-Ong T, Kang K, Seelbinder B, Li J, Walther G, Panagiotou G, Kurzai O (2021) Aspergillus fumigatus pan-genome analysis identifies genetic variants associated with human infection. Nat Microbiol 6, 1526-1536.

Krespach MKC, Stroe MC, Flak M, Komor AJ, Nietzsche S, Sasso S, Hertweck C, Brakhage AA (2021) Bacterial marginolactones trigger formation of algal gloeocapsoids, protective aggregates on the verge of multicellularity. PNAS 118(45), e2100892118.

Büttner H, Niehs SP, Vandelannoote K, Cseresnyés Z, Dose B, Richter I, Gerst R, Figge MT, Stinear TP, Pidot SJ, Hertweck C (2021) Bacterial endosymbionts protect beneficial soil fungus from nematode attack. PNAS 118(37), e2110669118.

Mahler L, Niehs SP, Martin K, Weber T, Scherlach K, Hertweck C, Roth M, Rosenbaum MA (2021) Highly parallelized droplet cultivation and prioritization of antibiotic producers from natural microbial communities. eLife 10, e64774.


Amelia Barber
Hannah Büttner
Zoltán Cseresnyés
Benjamin Dose
Michal Flak
Ruman Gerst
Falk Hillmann
Kang (Samuel) Kang
Anna Komor
Mario Krespach
Johann Kufs
Lisa Mahler
Karin Martin
Sarah Niehs
Julia Rautschek
Lars Regestein
Christin Reimer
Ingrid Richter
Martin Roth
Tongta Sae-Ong
Kirstin Scherlach
Bastian Seelbinder
Maria Stroe
Vito Valiante
Grit Walther
Thomas Weber

Science communication & accreditation

Friederike Gawlik
Charlotte Fuchs


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