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Christian Hertweck received Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine 2021

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Photo by Anna Schroll/Leibniz HKI

Metabolic products of microorganisms from which new antibiotics can be developed - this is one of the topics Christian Hertweck from the Leibniz-HKI in Jena is working on. He has now been awarded the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine 2021 for his outstanding research work. The prize, worth a total of 300,000 euros, is awarded every year by the Jung Foundation for Science and Research in Hamburg to top researchers whose projects contribute to medical progress.

Many substances produced by bacteria and fungi can cause diseases or poisoning. Others are able to cure infectious diseases and are given, for example, as antibiotics or antimycotics (drugs against fungal infections). Christian Hertweck's goal is to identify both pathogenic and pharmacologically relevant substances. With his research, he also wants to find out how and why microorganisms produce these bioactive substances in an ecological context. Hertweck is deputy director of the Leibniz-HKI and head of the Biomolecular Chemistry Department. He also holds the Chair of Natural Product Chemistry at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.

Activating silent genes and detecting undiscovered potentials

In the search for new natural products, Hertweck's team investigates the interaction of microbes with each other and with their hosts. In addition to chemical analysis and synthesis, the scientists use genetic methods such as genome mining: "Many genes that could code for the biosynthesis of active substances remain silent under laboratory conditions. Genome mining means that we specifically search for such genes and switch them on," explains Hertweck. The researchers are therefore concentrating on microorganisms whose metabolic potential - i.e. their ability to produce various natural substances - has so far received little attention or been overlooked. "In this way, we are able to identify active compounds, for example, that might otherwise have remained undiscovered," the biochemist continues. In order to optimise such natural products, Hertweck's group also uses what is known as genetic recombination: "We modify selected genes within the biosynthesis pathway. In this way, we increase the structural diversity of the active compounds and thus their effectiveness," explains Hertweck. The 51-year-old researcher has several internationally recognised discoveries to his credit in natural product research. His work on the biosynthesis of active compounds with unusual structures has caused a sensation worldwide.

Honouring research results

Christian Hertweck has already been awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. Now he will also receive the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine 2021 "It is a great honour for me to be awarded the Ernst Jung Prize, as I associate philanthropy, cosmopolitanism and generosity with the founder Ernst Jung," emphasises the Jena scientist. "The special foundation philosophy makes the Jung Foundation Prize special in my eyes - that forward-looking, interdisciplinary research and free thinking are promoted."

Hertweck shares the prize equally with the Munich metabolic researcher Matthias H. Tschöp. He receives 150,000 euros to honour and further promote his work.

Text: Leibniz HKI