2018 Otto Bayer Award goes to Dr. Tobias Erb
April 26, 2018
The award-winner of the 2018 Otto Bayer Award has been announced: the Board of Trustees of the Bayer Science & Education Foundation have awarded the EUR 75,000 prize to Dr. Tobias Erb from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology for his outstanding contributions in the field of “Synthetic biology, especially the application on artificial photosynthesis”. Erb and his team use methods from chemistry to create new biological metabolic pathways (“metabolic retrosynthesis") on the drawing board, thereby developing biology into a synthetic discipline.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important and natural constituent of air and the earth’s atmosphere. As a result of human activities, first and foremost the burning of fossil fuels, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has nearly doubled over the last century. This increase has negative repercussions; for example, the rapid increase in the CO2 concentration causes intensification of the greenhouse effect, which in turn fuels global warming. On the other hand, CO2 is essential to keep plants, algae and some bacteria alive: they convert the greenhouse gas into biomass in a process known as photosynthesis, in which CO2 and water are used to produce sugars and oxygen.
This three-billion-year-old process is relatively slow and inefficient, however. The key biocatalyst of photosynthesis, an enzyme called RuBisCO, converts only five to ten CO2 molecules per second on average. Seeking more efficient solutions, Tobias Erb and his team hit on microorganisms which exist virtually everywhere on earth: one gram of soil contains millions to billions of these microscopic organisms that possess an astonishing variety of the most diverse biocatalysts. These biocatalysts include a previously unknown enzyme from purple bacteria that converts CO2 up to ten times faster than RuBisCO during natural photosynthesis. In a pioneering experiment, Tobias Erb’s team succeeded in establishing an artificial metabolic pathway for in vitro CO2 conversion based on this highly efficient reaction and other enzymes from nine different microorganisms in an initial step towards artificial photosynthesis. These experiments might in future serve as the basis for a relevant contribution towards meeting human energy and food requirements while at the same time reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
As Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees, explains, “The conversion of carbon dioxide in the air into organic carbon compounds forms the basis of our food chain, our energy supply and our modern chemical industry. Photosynthesis is the best-known process of carbon dioxide conversion. Tobias Erb’s research has led him to discover previously unknown CO2-converting mechanisms in microorganisms, and he is seeking new artificial metabolic processes, that could be used in the future so that CO2 can become a sustainable raw material. Tobias Erb is a pioneer of this technology at the interface between biology and chemistry, and the jury has therefore decided that he is an ideal candidate for the prestigious Otto Bayer Award.”
The Otto Bayer Award is one of the most prestigious and sought-after honors for life scientists in German-speaking countries. The award will be officially presented by Werner Baumann, Chairman of the Board of Management of Bayer AG, at a ceremony in Berlin on June 25, 2018. The Otto Bayer Award honors scientists who have conducted pioneering research in innovative areas of biochemistry and chemistry. It has been presented since 1984 in memory of its endower and the inventor of polyurethane chemistry, Professor Otto Bayer. The former Head of Research at Bayer AG (not related to the company founder), who died in 1982, promoted intensive contact with academia and supported the university training of young scientists.
“Our future will be shaped by advances in basic and applied research. We want to promote science and strengthen excellence,” said Kemal Malik, member of the Bayer Board of Management for Innovation and Chairman of the foundation. “Research plays a key role for the inventor company Bayer. The knowledge, acceptance and application of future life science technologies are factors that are crucial to society and which Bayer is also seeking to promote with its foundations and by awarding this prize.”
The prize is awarded by the Bayer Science & Education Foundation. The foundation sees itself as a promoter of innovation and a pioneering spirit at the interface between industry, academia and civil society. Its primary objectives are the recognition of outstanding achievements in research, the promotion of science talents and support for innovative school projects in biology and chemistry. In terms of content, it focuses on the life sciences, health and medicine. The foundation honors outstanding research achievements every two years with the Otto Bayer Award and in alternate years with the Hansen Family Award, each of which carries prize money of EUR 75,000. In addition, the foundation presents two talent awards: the international Bayer Early Excellence in Science Award in biology, chemistry and medical science, each with prize money of EUR 10,000, and the Bayer Thrombosis Research Award for basic and clinical thrombosis research with prize money of EUR 30,000.
The latest winner of the Otto Bayer Award, Dr. Tobias Erb (38), has been Head of the Biochemistry and Synthetic Metabolism department at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg since 2017; he initially started work at the institute as a Max Planck research group leader in 2014. Tobias Erb studied biology and chemistry at the University of Freiburg and received his doctorate in 2009 while working in the laboratory of Professor Georg Fuchs. He was awarded the 2010 Doctorate Prize by the German Association for General and Applied Microbiology (VAAM) for his discovery of the ethylmalonyl-CoA pathway in Rhodobacter sphaeroides. Following a postdoctoral period at the University of Illinois (USA), he headed a junior team at ETH University in Zürich, before moving to the MPI in Marburg in 2014. In 2016, Tobias Erb received the Heinz Maier Leibnitz Award from the German Research Foundation (DFG), and in 2017 he was awarded the VAAM Research Award.
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