Balzan Prize for Reinhard Jahn

September 21, 2016

It is regarded as one of the most prestigious scientific awards: This year’s Balzan Prize from Italy goes to neurobiologist Reinhard Jahn from Göttingen. The Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry is being awarded the Prize in the field of molecular and cellular neurosciences.

Reinhard Jahn is to receive the distinction for his pioneering research into signal transmission in the nervous system. As a neurobiologist, he has researched how nerve cells communicate with each other and which molecular mechanisms underlie this signal transmission.

The transmission of information in the brain takes place via synapses located between neurons. When electrically stimulated, neurons release chemical messengers (neurotransmitters), which in turn trigger an electrical signal in downstream cells. The neurotransmitters are located in intracellular membrane-enclosed vesicles that fuse with the outer membrane of the neuron at the synapse, causing them to release their neurotransmitters. Reinhard Jahn has investigated the uptake of neurotransmitters in synaptic vesicles. He is especially interested in determining how vesicles merge and which proteins are involved in the process.

In addition to his research, the 65-year-old scientist has always been committed to promoting junior scientists. Among other things, he instigated the Göttingen Graduate School for Neurosciences, Biophysics and Molecular Biosciences (GGNB). He also initiated the first International Max Planck Research School for Molecular Biology. Within the Max Planck Society he is considered an energetic diplomat who has paved the way for new guidelines for the support of doctoral students. He enjoys working with young people. “It’s a privilege for an older person,” says Reinhard Jahn. During his own time as a doctoral student he had witnessed how easily science projects can fail. This led him to place great value on providing career support for junior scientists.

The Balzan Prize is awarded annually in alternating fields, two in the humanities and two in the natural sciences. In addition to Reinhard Jahn, the anglicist Piero Boltani of the Sapienza Università di Roma will be honoured this year for his contribution to comparative literature, as well as the physicist Federico Capasso of Harvard University for his work in applied photonics. Half of the 750,000 Swiss francs in prize money will flow into research projects with young scientists. The three winners will be presented with the award in Rome on November 17.

Personal profile

Reinhard Jahn has already received several top awards, including the Leibniz Prize, the Sir Bernard Katz Award, the Ernst Jung Prize and the Heinrich Wieland Prize. After completing his doctorate at the University of Göttingen, Reinhard Jahn, now 65, worked at Yale University and Rockefeller University in the USA. He then led a Junior Research Group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. In 1991 he returned to the United States, this time to work at Yale University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New Haven. Since 1997, Jahn has been Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.


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