Leibniz Prizes 2019 for three female Max Planck scientists

December 07, 2018

Melina Schuh, Brenda Schulman and Ayelet Shachar will be honoured with the most important German research promotion award, the Leibniz Prize 2019. Endowed with up to EUR 2.5 million, the award will be presented to them on 13 March 2019 in Berlin.

Melina Schuh will receive the award for her fundamental work in the field of reproductive biology. The Director of the Max Planck Institute of Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen has contributed crucial insights into how a mature egg cell is formed that is capable of fertilization, and what the consequences are when errors occur during this sensitive process.

“Errors most commonly occur during the process of cell division – known as meoisis – where the egg cell halves its double set of chromosomes,” says Melina Schuh. Only one of the two sets of chromosomes remains in the mature egg cell: the other one is ejected from the cell plasma. It is only at this stage that the egg cell is able to fuse with a sperm. Before the division of the ovum, chromosomes that belong together (homologs) initially arrange themselves at the centre of the cell by means of so-called spindle fibres. Here they are separated, and the spindle apparatus transports one copy to each of the two cell poles. 

With her team, the biochemist was able to show that homologous chromosomes in immature egg cells cluster less effectively in women aged over 35 than in younger women. She also discovered that chromosomes are often incorrectly bound to the spindle apparatus. Both factors contribute to error-prone meiosis and result in mature egg cells potentially containing the incorrect number of chromosomes. “If such an egg cell is fertilized, the chromosome anomaly can impact negatively on pregnancy and on the health of the child,” explains the Max Planck Director. 

In her Meiosis Department at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, the biochemist investigates how such errors can occur when the set of chromosomes is halved – also using high-performance optical microscopes. Her team actually succeeded in observing the process of chromosome division in unfertilized human egg cells live for the very first time. In order to understand the process of chromosome division in full molecular detail, Schuh also worked with her group to develop a new method that can be used to remove certain proteins from the egg cells within a few minutes. Analysis of the resulting effects allows the researchers to find out the functions performed by these proteins during meiosis. 

“Our insights help gain a better understanding of how egg cells capable of fertilization are produced, and why children of older women suffer from chromosome anomalies more frequently than those of younger women. In future, this knowledge could help women in their late 30s or early 40s who wish to have a child,” says the Leibniz prize-winner.

How visas for the super-rich are changing politics and society

The multidisciplinary work done by Ayelet Shachar on citizenship and the legal framework in multicultural societies has made her one of the leading experts in this field, for which she has now been awarded the Leibniz Prize 2019. Shachar’s first book “Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women’s Rights”, published in 2001, already attracts worldwide interest. In it, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Studies of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen examined the status of women in religious minorities and analyzed the tensions between tradition, religious diversity and the universal norm of gender equality.

In her second book “The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality” (2009), Shachar examines issues of equity arising from the fact that citizenship is typically acquired randomly rather than based on merit. She called for those who have been more fortunate in the “citizenship lottery” to mitigate the inequality in the worldwide distribution of opportunities: for example, prosperous states could be subjected to transnational obligations vis-à-vis poorer countries. More recently, Shachar has dedicated her attention to the phenomenon of “shifting borders”, i.e. the change from defining clearly drawn territories to creating flexible, variable zones and places in which more intense control and surveillance measures are permitted.

How one small protein deactivates other proteins

The Leibniz Prize has been awarded to Brenda Schulman, Director of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, in recognition of her biochemical and structure biological work on the molecular mechanisms of the ubiquitin system.

Proteins are the workhorses of the cell, with different proteins carrying out various kinds of work. This ranges from proteins which digest food as enzymes through to proteins which form part of muscles. In order for proteins to function correctly they have to be activated, but they must also be deactivated when their work is complete. One important way of deactivating them is to mark them with another small protein called “ubiquitin”. Just as there are large numbers of different proteins, there are also hundreds of different molecular machines, called the E3 ligases. These carry out the ubiquitin marking. For this reason, it is important for the E3 ligases themselves to be activated and deactivated in the cells in the right place and at the right time.

The “on switch” for about a third of all E3 ligases is a small protein which looks like ubiquitin but is referred to as NEDD8. “Although we know the components of many E3 ligases, we don’t know how NEDD8 is able to ensure that the E3 ligases come together in a cell at the right time and place with all their components, or how NEDD8 enables the ligases to transfer ubiquitin,” says Brenda Schulman. By adopting a multidisciplinary approach, the researchers are seeking to find out what NEDD8 contributes to the activation of E3 ligases. This includes the way in which the activated ubiquitin ligase machinery works and how NEDD8 causes other molecular machines to deactivate the ubiquitin-marked proteins.


About the Leibniz Prize 2019

The principal committee of the German Research Foundation (DFG) awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2019 to a total of four female scientists and six male scientists in Bonn today. The latter had been previously chosen from among 122 proposals by the selection committee responsible. Of the ten prize-winners, there are three from each of the areas of the humanities, social science and life science, and there are two each from the natural sciences and the engineering sciences. The winners receive prize money of EUR 2.5 million each, which they can use as they wish, in an unbureaucratic manor for their research work for a period of up to seven years. The Leibniz Prizes 2019 will be presented in Berlin on 13 March.

After winning Germany's most outstanding research promotion award, one female Leibniz Prize winner and six male Leibniz Prize winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in the past: 1988 Prof. Hartmut Michel (chemistry), 1991 Prof. Erwin Neher and Prof. Bert Sakmann (both medicine), 1995 Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (medicine), 2005 Prof. Theodor W. Hänsch (physics), 2007 Prof. Gerhard Ertl (chemistry) and 2014 Prof. Stefan W. Hell (chemistry).

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