American biochemist received this year's Inhoffen Medal

HZI and TU honoured Christopher T. Walsh


This year's laureate is awarded the Inhoffen Medal of the Friends of the HZI. In the picture (from left to right): Prof. Dieter Jahn (TU Braunschweig), Prof. Rolf Müller (Helmholtz Institute for…

© HZI/Hallbauer

How do bacteria cope when exposed to toxic mercury, how are they able to outlast antibiotics, and how can they be killed using so-called "suicide inhibitors"? These are but a few of the many research topics US biochemist Christopher Walsh has devoted his career as a scientist to. On Thursday, 25 April, Walsh was honoured for his achievements in Braunschweig, Germany: The Harvard professor received the 5 000 Euro Inhoffen Medal, the single most renowned German award in the field of natural compound chemistry.





The prize, which is funded by the Friends of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI), was awarded on the occasion of the public Inhoffen Lecture, an event co-hosted by the HZI and the Technische Universität (TU) Braunschweig. This year, the Inhoffen Lecture was scheduled for Thursday, 25 April, and was given in the HZI forum. "The award is bestowed in recognition of Walsh's impressive contribution to science," explains Prof. Dietmar Schomburg, Chairman of the Friends of the HZI.

Bacteria use clever "assembly lines" to make active substances they need to survive. Many of these substances are of medical interest for us humans as they can be used as antibiotics, for example. Christopher T. Walsh, professor at the renowned Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA, is a leading expert in the area of bacterial "factories".

Much of his research has been concerned with the investigation of the structure and function of enzymes, cellular catalysts, to better understand their molecular basis. Among other things, Walsh studied substances known as suicide inhibitors - compounds that, normally, are recognized and converted by some enzyme catalyst. The enzyme mistakes them for natural reaction partners, binds and converts them - leading to production of an inhibitory substance that acts to permanently block the enzyme. Suicide inhibitors that are effective against bacterial enzymes can be continually developed for application in medicine.

Walsh's work also allowed for artificially changing bacterial enzymes. This represents a major step forward for active substance biosynthesis. He also discovered how bacteria evolve resistance to the reserve antibiotic vancomycin - a discovery which helped move production of new antibiotics forward.

On the occasion of the Inhoffen Lecture, the Friends of the HZI also recognized outstanding dissertations in the life sciences. Recipients of the two 1 000 Euro PhD Awards were Dr. Cornelia Chizzali and Dr. Christian Mayer. As part of their doctoral work, Chizzali studied substances that are produced by fruit trees to protect themselves against the plant disease fire blight. Mayer worked on mechanisms of immune tolerance.

In addition to the PhD Awards, the Fritz Wagner Award for advancement of biotechnology was also bestowed. This year's 500 Euro Fritz Wagner Award went to Patrick Rabe in recognition of his doctoral work on the synthesis and analysis of secondary metabolites produced by bacteria.


Hans Herloff Inhoffen and the Inhoffen Medal

In remembrance of eminent chemist Prof. Hans Herloff Inhoffen who passed away in 1992, the TU Braunschweig and the HZI (at that time called the German Research Centre for Biotechnology, GBF) have been co-organizing the Inhoffen Lecture since 1994. The award by the same name is given on the occasion of the lecture. From 1946 to 1974, Inhoffen taught at the TH Braunschweig and was the university’s acting president from 1948 to 1950. In addition, in 1965, he co-founded the Institute of Molecular Biology, Biochemistry and Biophysics (IMB), the GBF’s and thereby the HZI's predecessor.