I was born on February 3, 1969 in Stuttgart, Germany, and grew up a little to the north of it in the countryside. When I was ten years old, I saw the TV programme “Hobbythek” with famous Jean Pütz. He carried out little chemical experiments and from then on, I started doing experiments myself. My parents have always been supportive of me and my two brothers. One Christmas they gave me a chemistry experiment kit as a present.
During my teenage years, my interest in the natural sciences expanded further. I had a great teacher, Mr Schnell, who encouraged me a lot. Also, I was a passionate guitar player, but never took many lessons.
At the end of the 1980s, I started studying chemistry, first in Stuttgart and then in Heidelberg. From the beginning, it was clear to me that I was particularly interested in biochemistry and molecular biology. But at that time, there were hardly any undergraduate programmes in that field in Germany, so you had to find your own way into it. Thanks to the Erasmus programme, I could spend time at the University of Bristol. Later, I also went to the University of Cambridge as a research student. Coming to the UK was one of the most inspiring experiences in my life: Cambridge is the birthplace of molecular biology and provided me with incredible insights and possibilities.
I received my Diploma in chemistry in 1995 at the University of Heidelberg. For my doctorate I went to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Grenoble. Although my first year was very difficult and experiments would constantly fail, I enjoyed my time in France very much. A new synchrotron had just been built at Grenoble and I was able to learn cutting-edge X-ray crystallography and could solve the three-dimensional structures of transcription factors of the so-called NF-kappaB family, which are important for organism development and the immune response. France also has a special place in my heart because my wife and I started our family here: our daughter was born in 1997.
After my doctorate in 1998, I became a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University with Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg. Between 1999 and 2001 I worked there on the subject that was to fascinate me for the rest of my life: The structural analysis of RNA polymerase complexes. We could determine the first structure of an eukaryotic RNA polymerase, Pol II, the central enzyme that produces messenger-RNA (mRNA) in our cells. Working with Roger and then actually being able to achieve the goal we set ourselves was a very special experience. My results were important for gaining him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the structural basis of transcription” in 2006. Without the support of my wife, I would not have been able to be as productive during this intensive research period at Stanford. Our second child, our son, was born in the US; he still has an American passport.
Our next stop, for the next 13 years, was to be Munich. I took a tenure-track professorship of biochemistry at the University of Munich (LMU) in 2001 and became Full Professor of biochemistry at the University of Munich from 2004 to 2013 as well as Director of LMU’s Gene Center. Our lab developed integrated structural biology methods to determine structures of Pol II in many functional complexes. We were particularly proud to prepare the first “molecular movie” of transcription. Now we could see how a gene is transcribed, how DNA is used as a template to make mRNA. Also, we were keen on finding methods to estimate cellular rates of RNA synthesis, splicing and degradation; in other words: we were monitoring RNA metabolism.
In Munich I got more involved in science management and became Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy. It is my conviction that those who have already made good progress in science have a duty to also take the time and work towards ideal conditions for the young scientists, and help the next generation to get started with their own research programmes.
In 2014, I was recruited as Director to the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry at Göttingen. My lab resolved many mechanistic aspects of gene transcription, from initiation to elongation and transcription-coupled events such as DNA repair or RNA processing. During the Corona pandemic we focused on SARS-CoV-2 for some time and worked out the structure of the polymerase with bound RNA template and RNA product. Based on these results, we clarified the mechanisms of the polymerase-targeting antiviral drugs remdesivir and molnupiravir. In 2022, I organized the merger of two Max Planck Institutes and my “home institute” is now called Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences. I left it this summer to start my job as President of the Max Planck Society in Munich for the term 2023–2029.
Science has so far, and in many ways, opened up an exciting life journey for me. I have given over 600 talks, been to many places around the world and have always felt at home, thanks to inspiring people of the scientific community and beyond whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I am indebted to many people: of course all the coworkers over the decades, and not least, my family. In my home village near Stuttgart, surrounded by vineyards, my curiosity was sparked to discover the world and the adventures science has to offer.
12 November 2023 Hong Kong