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Hermann Bujard - a passionate basic researcher

As one of the people who initiated the establishment of EMBL and in his role as founding director of the ZMBH, Hermann Bujard has made a considerable contribution to the transformation of Heidelberg into a leading location for molecular and biological research in Germany. As the director of EMBO, Bujard is now promoting the development of molecular biosciences across Europe.

In July 2007, Prof. Dr. Hermann Bujard was appointed Executive Director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO). The molecular biologist from Heidelberg took over from Prof. Frank Gannon in one of the most important and prestigious positions in European science. After 13 years at the head of EMBO, Prof. Frank Gannon has now returned home to Ireland. However, Bujard emphasized that he will only be available for as long as EMBO takes to find a new and younger director. Once a new director is in place, Bujard will once again return to scientific research, specifically to the development of a vaccine against malaria.

EMBO director

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hermann Bujar (Photo: University of Heidelberg)
But until such time, Bujard will be in charge of EMBO’s versatile programmes and activities. Workshops and training courses have to be organised, students for EMBO postdoctoral fellow and young investigator grants selected, the “Science and Society” lecture series organised (together with EMBL), EMBO publications, which are among the most renowned in worldwide molecular biology, supervised (EMBO Journal, EMBO reports, and Molecular Systems Biology, which is the latest EMBO publication), and last not least, new EMBO members have to be selected. At present, EMBO brings together more than 1,200 scientists from Europe and over 70 associated members from non-European countries, including 45 Nobel Laureates. However EMBO is much more than an academy of excellent molecular biologists, said Bujard in a message to EMBO members (EMBO encounters, issue 9, 2007/2008). It is a network of outstanding scientists, who themselves are closely connected with EMBO’s activities.

In autumn 2007, the European Life Scientist Organisation (ELSO) was on the way to becoming part of EMBO. In the past, ELSO was the sole organiser of a highly renowned conference, which is now co-organised with EMBO. The first jointly organised meeting is the ELSO Meeting 2008, which will be held from 30th August to 2nd September in Nice, France. From 2009 onwards, Bujard has plans to organise an annual symposium – the EMBO Annual Meeting – and expects it to become an annual forum for approximately 4000 cell, molecular and developmental biologists from around the world, making it the biggest life science event in Europe.

The EMBL comes to Heidelberg

Hermann Bujard was elected a member of EMBO in 1976, but his close connection with the organisation dates back to 1970. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and assistant professor at the Southwest Centre for Advanced Studies in Dallas, Texas. He had just become professor of molecular genetics at the University of Heidelberg, when he and Peter von Sengbusch and Ken Holmes of the Max Planck Institute of Medical Research prepared a proposal suggesting Heidelberg as the future home of EMBO.
The EMBO building on the EMBL campus (Photo: EMBO)
Back then, Munich seemed to have the best chance, but due to the persuasive power of the three scientists, who were supported by the famous nuclear physicist Wolfgang Gentner, as well as by Hans Jensen and the former Lord Mayor of Heidelberg, Heidelberg stood its ground against the competition and won. In due course, Bujar (together with Sengbusch) became part of the local organisation committee dealing with the setting up of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), thereby creating the basis for establishing EMBL in Heidelberg. One of the major goals of EMBO was to establish an institution of modern biology that is jointly supported by the European states. Today, EMBO has its own building in close proximity to the main EMBL laboratory.

In 1982, Bujard was appointed deputy director and head of biological research at F. Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel, where he focused on cancer and neurodegenerative diseases as well as developing the first research programme looking for a vaccine against malaria.

Foundation of the ZMBH

Centre for Molecular Biology in Heidelberg (ZMBH) (Photo: University of Heidelberg)
At the end of 1985, Hermann Bujard returned to the University of Heidelberg where he was appointed founding director of the Centre for Molecular Biology (ZMBH) for which he presented a seminal programme for basic research and the promotion of young scientists and education in the field of molecular biology. The new structure and science culture with its flat, faculty-independent organisation, research groups and flexible career possibilities was so successful that ZMBH has become a role model for the whole of Germany.

One of the major priorities in Bujard’s laboratory was the mechanisms of gene regulation. Bujard and his team succeeded in establishing a control system for the switching on and off of individual, specific genes in higher cells based on elements of a control loop that regulates bacterial resistance to the antibiotic tetracycline. “With the first human tumour cell line, which contained this tetracycline-independent transactivator (Tet switch), we were able to continuously regulate the activity of a single gene over a 250,000-fold range – simply by changing the amount of tetracycline in the culture dish. The fact that one-billionth of a gramme of doxycycline (tetracycline derivative) is enough to switch off the promoter totally highlights the sensitivity of the system.

The Tet switch and the fight against malaria

Nowadays, the Tet switch is used in numerous academic laboratories, as well as in industry, and in pharmaceutical and biotech companies all over the world. Bujard emphasises that the switch systems were developed on the basis of pure interest in the basic molecular mechanisms of gene regulation in E. coli. “They were more like a hobby, a project laughed at by reviewers and consequently financed with funds from other projects. Even when the first convincing results were obtained, German industry was still not at all interested in our findings….. that’s all I have to say about planning research projects and the incapacity of university lecturers in technology transfer……”
Tetracycline formula (Figure: private)
Bujard has authored more than 140 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals and owns 25 international patents. He has received numerous awards, including his EMBO membership and the honorary doctorate from the University of Würzburg, the Karl Heinz Beckurts Award and the Merit Medal of the State of Baden-Württemberg.

His major scientific interest is still the development of malaria vaccines based on the merozoite surface protein 1 (MSP-1), a protein on the surface of the infectious form of the blood stage malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum. GMP production of the vaccine is being prepared and Bujard expects to begin with clinical phase I trials in about two years’ time. Field studies in Africa will take about three years. He already has plans for life after EMBO, when he intends to set up a laboratory with a new work group as part of the Fraunhofer Society.

EJ – 12.02.2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH
Further information:
Dr. Ernst-Dieter Jarasch
BioRegion Rhein-Neckar-Dreieck e.V.
Im Neuenheimer Feld 582
69120 Heidelberg
E-mail: jarasch@bioregion-rnd.de
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