High Honours

Three Max Planck scientists will be awarded the German Research Foundation's (DFG) Leibniz Prize this year.

December 15, 2015

Marina V. Rodnina from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and Benjamin List from the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung (Coal Research) in Mülheim/Ruhr will receive the award in Berlin on 1 March 2016. Each prize is endowed with 2.5 million euros for future research projects.

Marina Rodnina will be honoured for her pioneering contributions to our understanding of the function of ribosomes. These extremely complex molecular machines synthesize proteins from amino acids. Rodnina is primarily interested in the question of how this translation process can proceed with the greatest possible precision and without errors. This is important because a single “wrong” building block can lead to a defective protein and to damage throughout the entire cell.

Born in Kiev, where she studied biology before obtaining her Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics, Marina Rodnina came to Witten/Herdecke University in 1990 with an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship. There, she obtained her postdoctoral qualification and became a professor of biophysical chemistry. She has been a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen since 2008.

Emmanuelle Charpentier is being presented with the Leibniz Prize for her groundbreaking work on the CRISPR-Cas9 system. The CRISPR-Cas9 system of bacteria has been harnessed as an extremely precise tool to edit genetic material and study gene function in cells and organisms. Among others applications, the CRISPR-Cas9 system is being used to develop treatments of serious human diseases. These discoveries represent a true milestone for molecular biology.

Charpentier studied microbiology, biochemistry and genetics in Paris. She obtained her PhD from the renowned Pasteur Institute. Following research positions in New York, at The Rockefeller University, Skirball Institute and New York University Medical Center, and in Memphis at St Jude’s Research Hospital, she returned to Europe in 2002 and established a research group at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories, University of Vienna and six years later at the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) at the University of Umeå in Sweden.  In 2013, Emmanuelle Charpentier was offered an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship at the nominating institutions, the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research and the Hannover Medical School enticing Charpentier to Germany. The Max Planck Society appointed the French microbiologist as Scientific Member and as a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin with effect from October 1, 2015.

The Leibniz Prize for Benjamin List recognizes a highly innovative and world-renowned chemist who founded an entirely new field of catalysis research. As a young assistant professor, List discovered the proline-catalysed intermolecular aldol reaction. This was one of the foundations for organocatalysis, which made it possible for the first time to forego metal catalysts and instead use natural substances as catalysts in the manufacture of chemical products and other key industrial technologies. Most organic catalysts are less toxic than standard metal catalysts. Furthermore, they are easily retrievable and thus contribute significantly to a more sustainable and more resource-efficient chemistry.

Benjamin List, who was already very interested in chemistry even as a young schoolboy, studied in Berlin and obtained his Ph.D. under Johann Mulzer in Frankfurt/Main. As a postdoc in La Jolla, California, he turned to biologically oriented chemistry, where he made his far-reaching first discovery. He came to the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung (Coal Research) in Mülheim/Ruhr in 2003, first as a Working Group Leader, then as Director in 2005.

The Joint Committee of the German Research Foundation (DFG) conferred the 2016 Leibniz Prize on ten scientists in Bonn on 10 December. These scientists were previously selected from 120 recommendations made by the Nominations Committee. Of the ten new prizewinners, three each are from the life sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities and social sciences, and one is from the engineering sciences. The Prize will be awarded in Berlin on 1 March 2016.


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