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Meet optogenetics pioneer Peter Hegemann, winner of the 2018 Otto Warburg Medal

The Humboldt University Berlin biophysics professor talks about the importance of advancing optogenetics and possibilities for the treatment of neuronal diseases

Otto Warburg Medal awardee Prof. Peter Hegemann (center) with GBM President Prof. Johannes Herrmann (right) and Elsevier Publishing Director Andrea O'Brien (left).
Otto Warburg Medal awardee Prof. Peter Hegemann (center) with GBM President Prof. Johannes Herrmann (right) and Elsevier Publishing Director Andrea O'Brien (left).

This year, the Otto Warburg Medal was awarded to Prof. Peter Hegemann, Hertie Professor in Neuroscience at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, for his research in light-activated ion-channels. His insights could eventually contribute to the treatment of neuronal illnesses, which are based on impaired sensory cells – conditions that include Parkinson’s disease, autism and schizophrenia.

On March 23, we had the privilege of honoring Prof. Hegemann together with the Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM) at the 69th Mosbacher Kolloquium in Germany. The GBM has been awarding this prestigious prize since 1963 to recognize pioneering achievements in fundamental biochemical and molecular biological research in Germany. Since 2012, Elsevier and our flagship journal BBA have been exclusive partners of the GBM and the sponsors of the medal. It’s part of our commitment to supporting excellence in research.

Prof. Hegemann is a pioneer in one of the most dynamic fields of research in life sciences and neuroscience: optogenetics. Dr. Hegemann discovered the light-activated ion channel channelrhodopsin in the “eye” of the green alga Chlamydomonas. He proved with his collaborators that this protein can be incorporated into host cells that can then be activated with light. His discovery generated new possibilities to investigate individual cells of neuronal networks and to study the function of these cells in living animals, a technology now known as optogenetics.

In his more recent work, Dr. Hegemann engineered light-activated proteins in many directions for mechanistic studies and for an even broader optogenetic application.

Prof. Hegemann completed his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried. He then did postdoctoral work at Syracuse University in New York, returning to Germany for stations in Munich and Regensburg before becoming a professor of experimental biophysics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2005. He is also the recipient of the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine, the Brain Prize and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize.

Q&A with Prof. Peter Hegemann

Prof. Dr. Peter Hegemann speaks at the Otto Warburg Medal ceremony.

Congratulations on receiving the Otto Warburg Medal. You and your team have done important groundwork enabling research in the area of optogenetics. Would you describe the process you went through?

Together with my team, I work on the biology and biophysics of natural sensory photoreceptors that are important for the orientation (phototaxis) and development of green alga Chlamydomonas. From our studies of the photoelectric responses of this alga, we postulated that the phototaxis photoreceptor is a light-gated ion channel, a concept that was proven by the molecular identification and characterization of the channelrhodopsins. We demonstrated originally with Georg Nagel that channelrhodopsins are expressible in many host cells including human kidney cells. Based on this finding, a number of international neuroscientists applied these algal proteins to neurons and evoked action potentials with light. This was the beginning of optogenetics.

Optogenetics allows for cells to be “switched on” or “switched off” using light. It may help to advance the treatment of neuronal illnesses such as Parkinson’s, which are based on impaired sensory cells, or of autism and schizophrenia. Will we be able to cure these diseases?

Optogenetics is an analytical technology with the goal to understand the function of individual cells or cell types within a large network non-invasively. It provides specificity for the experimentalist that was not in sight before. Potential applications are still up in the air, although applications for retinal prosthesis, which means to cure blindness, are already underway. However, we – and by we I mean molecular scientists in particular – are aware that application of any technology that involves gene therapy to humans is still highly problematic. For this reason, I would consider therapeutic application an exception. Nevertheless, this might change in the future.

Today, researchers not only need to achieve results, they need to be able to communicate and make them understandable to a broader public. Many researchers struggle to make their research understandable to non-experts. How important do you think this skill will be in the future, and how did you learn to communicate about your research in the most effective way?

It is not only our responsibility to explain science to the public, it is great fun and will improve the understanding and acceptance of science in the society. Most people do not know enough about science and do not have many options to learn much about it. I am involved to a significant extent in this: I gave a number of public lectures about optogenetics, for example, during the large public science festival Highlights of Physics in Jena. I also organized a Dahlem Conference on challenges and risks of optogenetics. I have also addressed the broader public, giving lectures during public days for school teachers and as well as during the Long Night of Science in Berlin.

The prospect of being able to win awards in science, such as the Otto Warburg Medal, encourages young researchers to achieve high-quality research results. What is your advice for young researchers for a successful career in science?

Dare to try something completely new, do not follow the crowd and do not necessarily compete with the largest groups in the world. There are so many unsolved natural phenomena around; do not just follow the crowd and do what everyone else is doing. It is boring after a while. New molecular technologies will allow young scientists to work efficiently on any species with short regeneration time. Many, if not most, new discoveries come from relatively young scientists who see the world through different eyes with an unclouded view.

As a successful researcher, do you have any special recommendations for young researchers who aim to pursue a career in microbiology or genetics?

Work in one, two or three excellent interdisciplinary laboratories in order to learn basic technologies and what scientific quality means. Then start doing your own business to answer your own questions. Apply for an independent position that enables you to really focus on your research.

What are your plans for the future and how will you use the prize money? What open questions would you still like to answer?

We are now working to improve already existing molecules. We will continue our work on light activated enzymes, and I will go back to the Chlamydomonas to understand the natural function of the 18 sensory photoreceptors that these wonderful model organisms harbor. The alga was our most patient co-worker, who should benefit from the prize as well.

The Otto Warburg Medal

Otto Warburg MedalAs one of the most highly esteemed science awards in Germany, the Otto Warburg Medal has been conferred by the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (GBM) since 1963. It honors outstanding, internationally recognized results in fundamental biochemical and molecular biological research.

Since 2012, GBM has been cooperating with Elsevier and its flagship title BBA – Biochemica et Biophysica Acta. From their early beginnings, both the GBM and Elsevier have been devoted to supporting and enhancing excellence in research. With the Otto Warburg Medal, they join forces to acknowledge pioneering achievements by international scientists, thereby inspiring young researchers and attracting the wider public’s interest in science. Elsevier and its journal BBA are the exclusive sponsors of this medal, with a cash prize to support continued research by the awardees.

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