(C) Wolf G Kroner 2015 - Thomas WollertInsider Tip - Autophagy Research
Thomas Wollert Receives Eppendorf 2015 Award for Young European Investigators

June 2015. Autophagy may be the next big topic in molecular biology, though its discovery dates back to the late 1980s. Since then only a few scientists have dedicated their research to this rather complex biological process. Thomas Wollert is one of them following the leads of Yoshinori Ohsumi at Tokyo Tech and Jim Hurley at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It is about shedding light on a barely understood basic biological phenomenon where cells of a plant, an animal or human react to hostile threats in their environment struggling to ensure survival. Dr. Wollert currently leads the research group Molecular Membrane and Organelle Biology at the Max-Planck-Institut (MPI) für Biochemie, Martinsried (DE) 1). He was selected by a high-level jury chaired by neurobiologist Reinhard Jahn, who is a Research Director at MPI Biophysikalische Chemie, Gö(C) Wolf G Kroner 2015 - Prof. Reinhard Jahnttingen (DE) and newly elected Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In his laudatory speech Prof. Jahn pointed to the extraordinary stamina and agility which is required in order to tackle autophagocytosis. “Thomas is someone who very much has his own mind and does not like to follow the beaten path”, said Mr. Jahn pointing to the winner’s quest for unresolved problems which differs to the typical scientist’s approach only selecting those questions to further elaboration which he or she already dealt with in their own prior research: “Essentially he demonstrated the first reconstitution of a protein-driven invagination and vesicle shedding process from purified components that recapitulates essential steps of the ESCRT pathway.” 2)

Autophagy describes different mechanisms within eukaryote cells whereby they adapt to life-threatening external interference with normal functioning. Dysfunction may also occur inside, for Prof. Yoshinori Ohsumi - Photo Toky Techexample when proteins are damaged along their formation process or when membrane proteins are wearing out in operation over time. By contrast autophagy is an emergency programme of the cell. In a cascading process the normal programme is broken into its constituents (e.g. multivesicular bodies, lysosomes) and prior tight coupling is loosened or interrupted between the original building blocks. This allows the cell either to eliminate or repair individual components which have become dysfunctional, or re-configure constituents thereby adapting the cell program to a changed environment. Thus it is a basic onto-biological process of plants, animals and humans as well 3). Autophagy is a Janus-headed phenomenon which makes it an exciting object for scientific research. Cells may degrade in undesired ways as in cancer, or they may renew and prolong life. While the importance of this basic biological process is becoming more widely recognized, major mechanisms remain enigmatic and still await answers.

Scientists can directly apply for the Eppendorf Young European Investigator Award, but candidates are evaluated by an independent academic jury. Since 1995 the Eppendorf prize went to many researchers moving up in career later on. Among past winners is Silvia Arber, Simon Boulton, Óscar Fernández-Capetillo, Helena Edlund, Patrick Kramer, Suzan Rooijakkers, Luca Sorrano, or Thomas Tuschl. Eppendorf will continue the competition with the next award ceremony at EMBL in June 2016 announced Wilhelm Plüster, (C) Wolf G Kroner 2015 - Wilhelm Plüsterthe company's CTO. The Hamburg-based  manufacturer of laboratory instrumentation is not the only one with a sixth sense for emerging translational science. Other international companies (e.g. Bayer Schering Pharma, Boehringer Ingelheim) are also following Thomas Wollert’s research. Nature Publisher Richard Hughes said at the ceremony that his publication is observing autophagy as it is coming to the forefront of cross-disciplinary debate in biology at rapid pace. The Eppendorf Prize is awarded in partnership with Nature, which is in the process to combine with Springer Science + Business.

On the occasion of the award ceremony B2Bioworld asked Thomas Wollert about day-to-day research life split between the lab, administrative chores, visiting colleagues and private life. In the exclusive interview he talks about research money, labour regulations, lab instruments – not just Eppendorf, and handling of sales reps. In addition he points out sensitive differences between academic research in Germany, the U.S., or the U.K. and details his position in upcoming job negotiations as his current post is ending at the Max-Planck-Institute of Biochemistry. ed


1) see: http://www.biochem.mpg.de/en/rg/wollert (status 1 July 2015)

2) See the seminal publication: Wollert T, Hurley J H (2010): Molecular Mechanism for Multivesicular Body Biogenesis by the ESCRT Complexes. Nature, 464: 864-869. The written version of the laudatory speech by Reinhard Jahn which provides more details can be found later this year at: http://corporate.eppendorf.com/en/company/scientific-awards/european-award/.

3) A popular description can be found in an interview with Yoshinori Ohsumi on the occasion of the Kyoto Prize, November 10, 2012: “Autophagy, the Survival Strategy of Organisms” (http://www.titech.ac.jp/english/research/stories/ohsumi.html). This interview also highlights two other aspects of basic scientific research which are often taken for granted. First, much publicly funded research is unnoticed outside specialised publications or small communities without private patrons donating prizes. Second, research questions cannot be solved without appropriate instruments being available to which the subtitle of Prof. Ohsumi’s interview alerts: «It All Started with a Microscope».

If you like to know more about Thomas Wollert you find it at

I want to do, what I want to do
Interview with Autophagy Researcher Thomas Wollert about Living for Science

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