Michael Kolbe - An eye for the smallest structures

Michael Kolbe investigates the tools used by bacteria to infect their hosts down to the single atom. His findings help to understand bacterial evasion strategies and to find new targets for rational therapies.

For millions of years eukaryotic cells have built up defence systems against pathogens. But the pathogens did not sleep either: In parallel, Gram negative bacteria, such as Salmonella or Shigella that cause food-borne illnesses, developed a system to outsmart those defence strategies: They possess a molecular syringe, called type three secretion system, which allows them to inject proteins directly into target cells, bypassing host defence and facilitating infection. Michael Kolbe wants to unravel the structure and function of these sophisticated tools literally down to the smallest detail. He leads the department “Structural Infection Biology” of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, but his research group is located at the Centre for Structural Systems Biology (CSSB) in Hamburg. Kolbe also holds a professorship at Hamburg University.

Physicists, biologists and pharmacologists work together in Kolbe’s group to elucidate molecular mechanisms of bacteria-host interaction on every magnification level possible going from tissue to sub-nanometre level. The CSSB provides unique facilities having high level biosafety laboratories just a dozens of metres away from the beamlines of the storage ring PETRA III. “Experiments that used to require elaborated logistics for samples transfer can be done just across the hall. This empowers us to collect enormous amounts of data,” says Kolbe, “but it also leads to the greatest challenge of our research: integrating different approaches to create meaningful data.”

Grown up in a family of teachers, young Michael Kolbe has been interested in chemistry, biology and physics since school years. ”How molecules that create life interact with each other has fascinated me from the very beginning,” recalls Kolbe.

One of the things that intrigued me the most was photosynthesis. I wanted to know how plants work on the molecular level.

Michael Kolbe, Head of the HZI Department "Structural Infection Biology"

Driven by his interest, he went on to study chemistry at the University of Paderborn and continued with his master studies having a focus on biochemistry at Hamburg University. ”My biggest inspiration was my PhD advisor Dieter Oesterhelt from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich,” says Kolbe. “He was applying physical methods in order to study biological molecules and that was something I always wanted to do as well. Going to his lab was a key step in my career.”

Now that Michael Kolbe has his own research group he serves as an inspiration for young scientists himself. Research is not always a straightforward success story, says Kolbe. On a way to discovery scientists face multiple obstacles: Experiments do not work as expected, hypotheses need to be reconsidered, manuscripts get rejected. Kolbe sees just one way to deal with frustration: Optimism. Although he hesitates to elucidate one formula for success, he says: “If I could give advice to young scientists, I would say ‘Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or asking stupid questions. Stay optimistic and believe in what you are doing!’”

Moving from Berlin to Hamburg and establishing laboratories there is another challenge that Michael Kolbe is facing. But he likes to discover the new city by bike with his wife and three children. “As scientists we sometimes lose the count of hours in the lab. But it is important to take a step back and recharge by spending time with family and friends,” he says.

Portrait by Tatyana Dubich

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