Once a year, the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM), along with Elsevier and its flagship journal BBA – Biochemica et Biophysica Acta, awards the Otto Warburg Medal to honor outstanding, internationally recognized results in basic biochemical and molecular biological research.
This year’s awardee, Prof. Dr. Stefan Jentsch – former Director of the Department of Molecular Cell Biology at the Max Planck Institute in Martinsried, Germany – was a driving force for innovation. He pioneered groundbreaking modern cell research and stood out as a passionate and talented mentor and source of inspiration for the next generation of biologists.
The ceremony took place on September 24at the Ruhr University Bochum during the GBM autumn conference, Molecular Basis of Life 2017, which brought together more than 500 researchers from Germany and across the globe.
This was the 50th time the Otto Warburg Medal was awarded, but the first time it was awarded posthumously. Characterized by an uncommonly emotional ceremony, the presentation conveyed the impact and meaning of Prof. Jentsch’s professional achievements.
Prof. Jentsch was recognized for his research on the protein ubiquitin and its role in protein degradation. He had passed away unexpectedly at age 61 in October 2016. Faithful companions – including former colleagues and students – welcomed the opportunity and honor to celebrate his work and the guidance he provided throughout his 35-year career.
“I met Stefan for the first time when I came here to the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry as an intern student,” said Dr. Boris Pfander, group leader at Max Planck and former colleague of Prof. Jentsch, in a video featured during the ceremony:
I was sitting at the computer, and Stefan came by and sat down next to me, and I realized that for him there was no hierarchy. It was all about science.
Prof. Jentsch made various pioneering contributions to the understanding of regulation by ubiquitin and ubiquitin-like proteins. He was extraordinarily gifted at identifying new, often unprecedented biological regulatory mechanisms. Although the modification of proteins with the small protein ubiquitin was originally thought to predominantly promote protein degradation by the proteasome, Prof. Jentsch discovered that a vast array of modifications by ubiquitin and related proteins fulfill a plethora of additional essential functions in cellular regulation. For example, he found that the ubiquitin system plays a critical role in DNA repair and maintaining genome stability. His fundamental discoveries illuminated new molecular mechanisms of mutagenesis and are of high medical relevance for understanding the origin of genetic diseases, including cancer.
To pay their respect to Prof. Jentsch’s work and mentorship, three former students – extraordinary scientists themselves – gathered at ceremony to hold the laudation and share the experiences, insights and memories:
- Prof. Dr. Thomas Sommer, Head of the research group Intracellular Proteolysis at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin
- Prof. Dr. Thorsten Hoppe, Head of Research Area B – Principal Investigator at the CECAD Cologne and Institute for Genetics, Cologne
- Prof. Dr. Michael Rape of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley
What became clear during their speech was that enthusiasm and motivation are just as important for the acceleration of research as expertise and resources. “Stefan Jentsch was an exceptional scientist and mentor,” Prof. Rape said. “His insights were groundbreaking for a number of research areas. His enthusiasm for science was truly contagious.”
To underline Stefan Jentsch’s efforts to bring together outstanding scientific achievements the support of young researchers, Prof. Sommer added: “I was lucky enough to get the chance to work with Stefan Jentsch as one of the first postdoctoral researchers he supervised. During this time, I was able to learn a lot about how to develop a new scientific approach and how to get the entire team to be enthusiastic about it.”
Prof. Jentsch was known and admired among his colleagues for his creativity and meticulousness. He was a thought leader who could break down complex issues and present them in a way that was easy to understand for everyone. As Prof. Hoppe noted:
Stefan Jentsch was able to tell ‘exciting stories.’ In the everyday laboratory practice, his favorite thing to do was to discuss the progress made on different projects with his doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, while developing new ideas together. This was extremely motivating and inspiring for many of us.
Prof. Jentsch was considered a scientist thinking outside the box – a way of working and principle he aimed to pass on to his doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers. Most of them – including Prof. Sommer, Prof. Hoppe and Prof. Rape – followed his example.
Prof. Jentsch’ brother, Prof. Thomas Jentsch, accepted the award. He was noticeably touched, expressing his gratitude to GBM for deciding to award the Otto Warburg Medal to his brother posthumously.
The Elsevier/BAA-sponsored prize money of €25,000, with which the Otto Warburg-Medal is endowed, will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.
Watch a video about the award
The GMB congress
Last week, the Otto Warburg Medal was awarded for the 50th time at the GBM autumn conference Molecular Basis of Life 2017. The congress, which drew more than 500 researchers from Germany and across the globe, covered the entire spectrum of molecular biosciences. In addition, there were sessions on research in the bioscience industry, spectroscopic methods and biomarkers, publishing and peer review, perspectives towards the magnetic control of the nervous system, sessions organized by the junior GBM, and a public panel discussion on ethics focusing on the impact of the new CRISPR/Cas9 technique on future development of life.