Rudolf K. Thauer receives Cothenius Medal

Leopoldina honors Rudolf K. Thauer with the Cothenius Medal for his outstanding scientific lifetime achievement

September 01, 2021

The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina honours its member Rudolf K. Thauer with the Cothenius Medal. The researcher receives this award for his outstanding scientific life's work. The awards will be presented during the ceremonial opening of the Leopoldina Annual Assembly on Friday, September 24, 2021, in Halle (Saale).

Prof. Dr. Rudolf K. Thauer is Professor Emeritus of Microbiology. He has made many important contributions to the biochemistry, physiology and ecology of microorganisms that live anaerobically, i.e. without oxygen. His research has been focused on the energy metabolism of bacteria and archaea, which can grow on H2 and CO2 and which play an important role in the global carbon cycle. Archaea, like bacteria, are small single-celled microorganisms. They have evolved independently from bacteria and eukaryotes (plants, animals, fungi) and therefore represent a separate domain of cellular life. Thauer primarily investigated acetogenic bacteria and methanogenic archaea. These bacteria use the energy that is released during the formation of acetic acid and methane, respectively. Together with his research group, he elucidated the underlying metabolic pathways that lead from CO2 and H2 to acetic acid and methane, respectively. In the process, the microbiologist discovered that these organisms depend on nickel as a trace element for growth. Among other things, his group characterized several nickel enzymes involved in acetic acid and methane formation, as well as the nickel-containing coenzyme F430, whose chemical structure he elucidated. In addition, he also identified the biochemical sites where the energy is conserved that is released during the formation of acetic acid and methane, respectively. He described these results in over 400 widely cited publications. He has supervised 72 dissertations, ten postdoctoral theses and more than 100 other theses.

Rudolf K. Thauer studied medicine and biochemistry in Frankfurt am Main and Tübingen from 1959 to 1966. In 1968, he received his doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Freiburg. His habilitation in biochemistry also took place in Freiburg in 1971. In 1972, Thauer was appointed professor at the Chair of Plant Biochemistry at the Ruhr University in Bochum. In 1976, he moved to the Chair of Microbiology at the Philipps University of Marburg. He was a founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg since 1991 and headed the Department of Biochemistry until his retirement at the end of 2007, followed by another seven years as Emeritus Group Leader. Thauer's scientific achievements have been honored many times, including the Otto Warburg Medal of the Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1984, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in 1987, and the Carl Friedrich Gauss Medal of the Braunschweig Scientific Society in 2008. In his honor, a newly discovered bacterial genus Thauera was named in 1993, of which there are now 17 species.

He holds honorary doctorates from the ETH Zurich (2001) and the Universities of Fribourg (2007) and Waterloo in Canada (2007).  He became a member of the Leopoldina in 1984 in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Section. In 1992, he was honored with the Carus Medal of the Leopoldina. In 2013, the Presidium of the Leopoldina, of which he was a member from 2005 to 2010, awarded him the Academy's Medal of Merit in recognition of his commitment to the reorientation of the Leopoldina into a National Academy of Sciences.

The Cothenius Medal dates back to an endowment by Leopoldina member and personal physician of Prussian King Frederick II, Christian Andreas von Cothenius (1708-1789). It was awarded for the first time in 1792. Initially, the prize winners were honored for their work on medical research questions. Since 1954, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina has awarded the Cothenius Medals for the outstanding scientific life's work of the honorees. As a rule, the awards are presented to members of the Academy.


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