iâ€™m sitting here on an heirloom from my grandfather. he built the sofa himself and it was in the family for years until i took it with me when i was furnishing my first ever office in jena. 16 years ago, i was group leader for the young researchers there, initially on my own, and i was allowed to set up a small office in a small hut, originally intended for labourers. and i had applied to the dfg (german research foundation) for money for laboratory equipment, for technical components and chemicals, and staff, and one of the things i had listed was a sofa.
everything else was approved, except for the sofa! i guess i hadnâ€™t explained my reasons for needing it adequately, because in our line of business you often need a place to sleep for example when carrying out measurements on a spectrometer overnight, when the samples have to be changed every few hours and the equipment has to run day and night because the measuring mode is so expensive. so thatâ€™s why i was allowed to take the family sofa and slept on that. i had a major sleep deficit for a long while because
i was working non-stop on a new project for two or three weeks and knew i had to submit something by a deadline. i managed it by 10 oâ€™clock that morning and at 11 i was expecting a delegation from france. and in those spare 60 minutes i decided to lie down and when they knocked on the door i opened it looking rather dishevelled without my glasses on and without shoes...(laughs). they were all very amused that these things still happen.
these phases are rare but very valuable. itâ€™s the second time in ten years that i have been able to deal with a topic so intensively and now i simply take the liberty of doing so. the last time was because i had my driverâ€™s licence confiscated and so out of necessity i had to spend a lot of time at home and spent a lot of time with colleagues there, thinking, working and getting creative. iâ€™ve even brought a model with me: a product of our brainstorming. this is what we imagine a pore to look like,
made up of lots of single molecules and the clever thing about this story is that the molecules are connected through the simplest physical principles: positively and negatively charged molecules that mutually attract. everyone knows that. and we had determined that in the sequence, so in the dna-coded amino-acid sequence of this protein, there was a symmetry. and it was just thanks to our imagination and our work on this topic that we hit on the fact that it must consist of a bunch of helical segments, rolls like these, and they have to be connected to one another
in a certain way and we tried to imitate it here with velcro. and that was how the idea came about of how a cell membrane must look. and then it took another two years before we could run the appropriate experiments, until we had built better models, computer models too, but finally the idea that we had first developed as a theoretical concept was confirmed. and we had come up with that three years ago, basically sitting around my dining table at home. that is an oligomer, a bond of twelve single proteins
that are all similar; and they create a ring and the middle of this ring loves water: which means water or ions or soluble elements can flow through it whilst the rest is embedded in a cell membrane that otherwise would take on this barrier function. and the important thing is that the water-loving parts have to be protected from the outer fat-loving parts that are embedded in the membrane. because of course water and fat donâ€™t get alongâ€¦ and that's why this complex protein architecture is in place,
in order to practically create the protection on the surface for this defined hole in the membrane. but that is only a temporary hole of course, because if it were there for longer the cell would flow out. but here through this hole, proteins are transported that are produced in bacteria and then have to reach the outside worldâ€¦ which looks like this. in the meantime we have much prettier pictures but that was â€¦ that helped to understand the three-dimensional correlations.
and then we made a few things more professional. we even have this for our regular group meetings for all the proteins we work withâ€¦ we have some very nice automatic a4 printouts that are then stuck together with pritt stick and then you can see which fatty, butter-coloured yellow amino acids want to bond with the charged blue and red amino acids and then you can begin to dock molecules. yes, that's a much cheaper and more illustrative way than if you build the molecule models like we did here.
these are commercial kits where you have to put lots of rods and spheres together, but you actually understand a lot less than if you use a system you have built oneself. just as when you get to know a person in their entire complexity, a molecule is also something that one starts by examining slowly and then you gradually discover more and more characteristics: how does it behave in certain conditions, what does it look like, how can it change its structure, which other molecules does it like to interact with? and eventually you have more than a three-dimensional idea of it,
but also develop a kind of gut feeling, how does it behave in this membrane, or in this one? and of course the foundation for this is an awful lot of knowledge, based on many years of study and an intensive involvement with the material, but i believe that you develop a certain amount of gut feeling that you subconsciously allow to flow into your perception, which leads to truly new ideas and a really creative hypothesis, which can then be proven in a very rational way by means of experiments. life frequently gets into a state of disarray when you suddenly realise
that this aspect of a hypothesis no longer fits in with specific known parameters or with the latest findings, and that is a very depressing moment. for me that takes time. it works away at me, consciously and subconsciously until i find other options to make the universal model of this molecule match again. and these different options, well these can be tracked and measured until they fit again. and that's really what the entire scientific business is about: creating order in facts or findings that are initially unconnected,
and yes, that is very fulfilling. well, i believe there are two aspects that are important as a scientist. one is very egotistical, that one simply, or i in any case, enjoy working with new things, discovering new insights even if they are really tiny. that gives you a real adrenaline kick in your brain, just like when you are playing one of those first-person shooting games, thatâ€™s the same as when i have my scientific â€˜eureka!â€™ moments. and the second aspect is one that leads to applications, for example trying to develop active ingredients with our new antibiotic peptides.
of course as a small academic group we are unable to see it through the clinical phases, so yesterday i went to a big pharmaceuticals company who are trying to help us. and if that works out, if we are lucky, with their support, part of our research could really be of help to society right now. because resistance to antibiotics is currently a massive threat. and that is naturally also a significant aspect, which helps you to persevere during the more critical phases. if you say to yourself, perhaps the end result will be not only something that
leads to new insights, but also a product that saves peoplesâ€™ lives. yes, iâ€™ve been here for ten years and at the beginning i was incredibly young and inexperienced. due to my studies in england and my junior professorship in the former gdr, in jena, i had little experience with faculty business. and i often felt like i was in a shark tank. which wasnâ€™t necessarily because of personal reasons, it was simply conflicts of interest, distribution struggles about rooms, or about funds. and i think you learn to grow a thick skin and not to take things too personally. to begin with i was very inexperienced, obviously, and very focused
on purely scientific aspects, and did at some point have to recognise that a lot of other activities were also part of the job description, the profession, like working in the faculty, the applications for the helmholtz programmes and managing an ever-increasing working group. there are now over 40 of us now, and that does, of course, require a lot of time and effort. and i also had to deal with all kinds of administrative processes, which was pretty frustrating in parts, but i think now i've learned that some things are simply not as important as they seem to me at first.
if you get an email saying you have to get all this information together by this particular date. sometimes itâ€™s okay if the information is not perfect and complete. and that was quite interesting; the fact that i built a bridge between the university aspect and the research centre part of the k.i.t. quite early on, before we were even called that. that meant we basically had to combine two completely different cultures within one group. the uni was dynamic, very young, didn't have much money. that was the environment i came from, and in the research centre,
the former nuclear research centre there was a completely different philosophy. they were mainly permanently employed staff who were all older than me and had excellent expertise, but didn't feel at home in a chaotic environment like the university. and then the first thing we did was to put on a group conference in a youth hostel, where the lectures took place in a barn. and that was pretty critical because the two groups had had very little personal interaction with each other. but they were stuck together for three or four days, and had to give lectures
and spend the evenings together. we had a guitar with us, and even sang together and i think that broke the ice. that created an element of trust. but that's the important thing i want to say, that the human component, the cooperation between people, has to work and when the chemistry isnâ€™t right then that can be really hard. because you canâ€™t build creativity and productivity on science and facts alone.