Ceremonial handover of office at the HZI

Josef Penninger has taken over the scientific management of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research from Dirk Heinz - MICROSTAR project launched

In July of this year, the new Scientific Director, Prof Josef Penninger, took office at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI). He succeeds Prof Dirk Heinz, who stepped down from his position after 13 years and began establishing the new "Molecular Structural Biology" research department at the HZI. On 4 December 2023, Dirk Heinz was thanked for his many years of successful work and the handover of office to Josef Penninger was celebrated in the presence of renowned guests from science and politics.

Dirk Heinz and Josef Penninger hand over the keys to HZIDirk Heinz and Josef Penninger at the HZI key handover ©HZI/KruszewskiJosef Penninger, a geneticist who has received numerous international awards, previously headed the Life Sciences Institute at the University of British Columbia (Canada). At the same time as taking over the scientific management of the HZI, Penninger was also appointed Professor of Precision Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, where he is to establish the new Eric Kandel Institute for Precision Medicine. The first milestone at the HZI under Penninger's leadership was the "Microbial Stargazing - Research into Resilience Mechanisms of Microbes and Humans" (MICROSTAR for short) project, which was launched with a total budget of around 30 million euros.

Stephan WeilMinister President of Lower Saxony Stephan Weil ©HZI/Kruszewski"I am always impressed by the groundbreaking work of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI), which has been indispensable, especially during the pandemic. The HZI plays a decisive role in research into bacterial and viral pathogens and the immune system. Cutting-edge research from Lower Saxony - something we can all be proud of. Special thanks go to Prof Dr Dirk Heinz for his outstanding achievements as Scientific Director to date. His vision and leadership have made the HZI what it is today. These successes are invaluable not only for the Centre, but for the whole of Lower Saxony," said Lower Saxony's Minister President Stephan Weil. "I am convinced that the HZI will continue to play a key role in infection research under the new leadership of Prof Dr Josef Penninger and will be a driving force in infection biology. The state will be happy to support this development. I wish the entire team continued success."

The aim of the HZI project MICROSTAR, led by Penninger, is to find solutions to the increasing global challenges posed by infectious diseases. Over the course of around four billion years of evolution, all organisms have developed systems at the molecular, genomic, cellular, system and ecosystem levels that protect them from external and internal disturbances. Bacteria and viruses in particular have developed a broad spectrum of such resilience mechanisms to successfully adapt to a variety of ecosystems and hosts. MICROSTAR aims to provide a deeper understanding of infections and defense mechanisms in order to learn from the microbial world and develop new solutions to the global challenges posed by infectious diseases.

Josef Penninger Josef Penninger ©HZI/Kruszewski "The HZI has been set up wonderfully, Dirk Heinz and his team have done a fantastic job together with all employees. Now to get the last few percent to play in the Champions League of research every year, that is my vision, which I am very much looking forward to," said Josef Penninger. "We have taken a first major step in this direction with the launch of the MICROSTAR project, which we hope will not only lead to groundbreaking findings, but also to the founding of new companies. For this to succeed, we are currently looking for excellent scientists to set up new junior research groups at the HZI. To make this a success, we are currently looking for excellent scientists to establish new junior research groups at the HZI. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the BMBF and the state of Lower Saxony for their generous support."

"In recent years, the HZI has set the tone in infection research by establishing new institutes focusing on areas such as personalized medicine and RNA-based research," said Dirk Heinz. "I am proud and grateful for what we have achieved together at the HZI so far and will follow the further positive development of the Centre with excitement and joy."

Selected stations of Josef Penninger:

from 07/01/2023 Scientific Director at Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Braunschweig
2018 – 2023 Director of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of British Columbia, Canada
2018 – 2023 Full Professor, Department of Medical Genetics, University of British Columbia, Canada
2002 – 2018 Founding Director at the Institute for Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, IMBA, Vienna)
since 2002 Full Professor of Immunology, University of Toronto, Canada

Further information:

“InFact - The HZI Podcast. Science that is contagious.“ with Josef Penninger
Interview with Josef Penninger and Christian Scherf: “Aiming for the top as a team“

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