High award for talented young researchers from Marburg

EMBO Young Scientist Award 2023 goes to Jan Schuller and Georg Hochberg

December 05, 2023

The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) supports outstanding scientific talents in the early stages of their careers with the Young Investigator Programme. This year, the prestigious award goes to two researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the Philipps University of Marburg: Dr. Georg Hochberg and Dr. Jan Michael Schuller. Both have a strong interdisciplinary approach, working at the interface between molecular biology, synthetic biology and biochemistry.

'Our young researchers exemplify the strength of an interdisciplinary scientific environment such as the one we have established at the Center for Synthetic Microbiology (SYNMIKRO) at the University of Marburg with our partners. Here, answers to the pressing questions of our time and solutions for the challenges of tomorrow in the field of microorganisms are being developed. I warmly congratulate both of them', says Prof. Dr. Gert Bange, Vice President for Research at the Philipps University of Marburg.

Dr. Georg Hochberg is Max Planck Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. He investigates the evolution of protein complexes at the interface between experimental biochemistry and evolutionary biology. As the fundamental building blocks of life, proteins are a part of practically every process in the cell. At the same time, they are the most complex macromolecules and show an overwhelming diversity. But how did nature create this diversity? Dr. Georg Hochberg's laboratory uses statistical methods to calculate the sequences of proteins that last existed millions or even billions of years ago. The researchers then synthesize these protein ancestors in the laboratory and experimentally investigate the types of complexes they form. "We want to understand how evolution has learned to solve the most difficult biochemical problems and use this understanding to generate new solutions for the present, for example more efficient CO2 fixation. 'The support from EMBO enables us to network better and to delve even deeper into the molecular history of the cell – also together with Jan Schuller’s EMBO funded group', says Dr. Georg Hochberg.

Emmy Noether group leader Dr. Jan Michael Schuller investigates bacteria and their enzymatic equipment at the university's Department of Chemistry. He has discovered how enzymatic "nanowires" enable a remarkably efficient conversion of CO2. His work thus lays a foundation for the future biotechnological production of carbon compounds from atmospheric CO2. A promising biotechnological solution to reduce the high CO2 content in the atmosphere is the recycling of carbon with the help of acetogenic bacteria. These microorganisms could fix CO2 in large industrial plants - and produce biofuels and recycled carbon compounds from it. However, their metabolism is still a major enigma, which Schuller is working on investigating. The various acetogenic bacteria - which are not necessarily related to each other but always live without oxygen - use a special metabolic pathway. They produce acetate (acetic acid salt), which they use for respiration, just like other living organisms use oxygen. This is probably the oldest biochemical metabolic pathway on Earth: from CO2 and hydrogen, which were already present on the early Earth, the bacteria form organic compounds, i.e. "living matter". Schuller's group has begun to unravel the individual enzymatic steps that are necessary for this.

'I am very excited that the EMBO Young Investigator Program gives us the opportunity to bring our insights into how these evolutionarily ancient organisms can survive at the thermodynamic limit of life to a wider audience. I strongly believe that the ancient organisms on our planet have some of the tools and strategies that we need to tackle the challenges of our future, in particular human-induced climate change', says Dr. Jan Schuller.

Inclusion in the program comes with prize money of 15,000 euros each. In addition, the researchers can apply for 10,000 euros per year for the next four years to support their projects. Above all, the EMBO YIP supports networking activities such as visits to cooperation partners abroad or travel expenses to conferences. The aim is to promote international networking in particular among the young scientists.

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