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Jürgen Wolfrum – crossing the frontiers of science

The frontiers between scientific disciplines have always interested Prof. Jürgen Wolfrum, a physicist who has been awarded many international prizes. Wolfrum is a pioneer in applied laser spectroscopy, which he uses successfully in a variety of fields. For example, in the automotive industry, he uses laser spectroscopy to investigate elementary chemical reactions and combustion processes. In the field of biosciences he uses the same basic technique to investigate cellular processes. Wolfrum is emeritus professor of physical chemistry at the University of Heidelberg, but this does not mean that he has retired. As senior professor and founding director of BIOQUANT, the first systems biology centre in Europe, Wolfrum is still very actively involved in international research.

Prof. Jürgen Wolfrum - senior professor at the University of Heidelberg and founding director of BIOQUANT. © BIOQUANT

Professor Wolfrum's scientific career started in a similar way to many other junior researchers: even as a boy, Wolfrum wanted to become a researcher. He was born and brought up in Jena in the former East Germany. He went to the Jenaplan Experimental School which had a decisive influence on his plans to become a scientist. It was his enthusiastic physics teacher who was able to communicate the subject in such an exciting manner that not only Wolfrum, but half of Wolfrum's class, decided to study physics. However, it took some time before Wolfrum was able to start his physics studies. His parents were Christians and as a result, Wolfrum was unable to study further in communist East Germany. That is why he started work as an assistant laboratory worker, a job that brought him into close contact with electronics and workshops. Only after his family moved to Göttingen and his East German school examination had been approved, was Wolfrum able to start his physics studies at the University of Göttingen, from where he also received his doctorate in 1968. The topic of his doctoral thesis, Experiments for the determination of the speed of chemical elementary reactions, gave no indication that he would later become an active bioscientist.

There is always something happening in the frontier areas

As a student, Wolfrum met the renowned physicist Friedrich Hund, the discoverer of Hund’s rules. Hund gave him a piece of advice that would stay with him throughout his entire life as a researcher: “Focus on a scientific frontier area; there is always something happening there.” Wolfrum soon crossed the first, though small frontier: the physicist habilitated in physical chemistry and in 1982 became the chair of physical chemistry at the University of Heidelberg where he would research and teach for more than 25 years. “Heidelberg seemed to be perfect because there I had the possibility to work on an interdisciplinary level. I could also talk with mathematicians if I wanted to,” added Wolfrum cheekily. In addition, he was also fascinated by the spirit of the city where world renowned researchers such as Bunsen, Kirchhoff, Bodenstein, Kossel and Meyerhof had worked. Wolfrum: “To study in the same city as these renowned researchers is very exciting, even 100 years later, and the city attracts many researchers, including me.”

In addition, Wolfrum came into contact with laser chemistry. He was especially excited about mathematical modelling and laser-assisted investigations of combustion processes. Working together with his students, Wolfrum started to develop processes for the automotive industry that enabled the analysis of combustion processes in running engines. “At the beginning, the engineers would just smile at us. At that time, the reduction of CO2 gas was not yet an issue that had to be tackled,” said the professor. Many years later, the former Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech said: “Without laser diagnostics, we would now not have modern, direct injection combustion engines.”

Wolfrum regards the work on the combustion engines as one of his and his students’ most exciting projects. These were true pioneering activities, which also involved Wolfgang Ketterle, who did his postdoctoral period in Wolfrum’s laboratory and was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2001 for the construction of the first atom laser.

Laser technology in the biosciences

Following the success of laser technology in combustion processes, Wolfrum looked for additional fields where he could apply laser technology. Biology seemed to be an excellent area: Countless interactions occur in the restricted area of small cells and suitable methods were required to investigate the various reactions. Ten years ago, Wolfrum succeeded in detecting individual cellular molecules using diode lasers. The technique involved labelling DNA and other biomolecules with dyes that could then be detected with laser beams. Nowadays, the use of diode lasers has become a standard technique in molecular biology, for example in the sequencing of DNA.

BIOQUANT develops models

BIOQUANT building on the Heidelberg University campus (Photo: University of Heidelberg)

Shortly before he retired from the chair of physical chemistry in 2005, Professor Wolfrum accepted the offer from the University of Heidelberg to establish and design a bigger bioscientific research institution - BIOQUANT, an interdisciplinary centre focusing on systems biology ("Quantitative analysis of molecular and cellular biosystems") and the first ever systems biology centre in Europe. Wolfram became one of the centre's three founding directors and established a technology platform that dealt with the comparison of mathematical models with in vivo situations: "Models are basically wrong and only correspond to a very limited reality," said Wolfrum. In order to develop the models further, it is necessary to compare assumption and reality. Therefore, the experiments will, for example, analyse signalling cascades using non-contact optical methods. "It is impossible to remove a molecular process from the natural cell environment, something that can be done with combustion engines. Therefore, non-contact methods of investigation are extremely important," explains Wolfrum.

Creative atmosphere at the interdisciplinary centre

At BIOQUANT, researchers are working together who would normally not come into contact with each other: the floor where the BIOQUANT laboratories are located is home to modelling as well as experimental groups. “This leads to a highly creative atmosphere,” and convinces Wolfrum that the way the organisation is set up is highly effective. He adds: “Role reversal is something very special here. Mathematics students are often better at explaining things to biology students than the mathematics professors. This is simply because students talk differently with each other, leading to a very efficient environment.”

High-resolution microscopy advances systems biology

The methods developed by Wolfrum and his colleagues are used by BIOQUANT researchers to study important cellular processes on the level of individual molecules. For example, the researchers hope to find out how signals are transmitted in and between cells, and what kind of cascades they trigger. Single molecule methods are used to count and analyse molecules and find out how quickly molecules move. Another major research priority under the leadership of Professor Wolfrum is the further development of high-resolution microscopy, which has contributed considerably to advancing systems biology in the last few years. A new project will now combine light and electron microscopy and focus on the simultaneous application of the two methods in order to compensate for the “blind spot”, a flaw the two methods have, although at different places. A new BIOQUANT centre will be established for this particular purpose.

Nature is lazy and likes to copy things

Such studies have the long-term objective of developing methods that will make it possible to specifically target defective cellular processes, which are the causes of many diseases. However, Wolfrum emphasises the long-term aspects of the project. “The things we are currently working on are likely to become important for the pharmaceutical industry in about 20 years’ time. But the example of the automotive industry shows us that the things we worked on 20 years ago, i.e. the direct observation of processes, is now of great importance and broadly accepted.”

BIOQUANT is currently investigating many small sub-areas, and it is not always easy to see the overall picture as a wide variety of measurements are necessary. “But nature is lazy; it likes to copy things,” said Wolfrum. “This means that once we are able to understand a particular principle in all its details, then we will be able to transfer it to many other processes.”

Believing in oneself is more important than tactical planning

On the question on how he manages to fulfil his numerous tasks, Professor Wolfrum said that he was only the "catalyst", one who tries to bring suitable researchers into contact with each other and one who is looking for creative people. Wolfrum clearly enjoys the fact that his senior professorship does not require him to hold lectures every day of the week or to deal with administrative work. The application of his findings has always been important for Wolfrum. He also attaches great importance to working in a group of researchers that functions well together. Efficient team work is something about which he knows from playing volleyball, which he enjoys tremendously. "Many things cannot be achieved by individuals, because everybody has their own special area of expertise. Dialogue opens up the possibility of long-term successful developments." That is why Wolfrum has never been tempted to accept a job in industry: "I enjoy my work as a university lecturer," said Wolfrum, adding some things which are most important to him; "the freedom to work with young people, to work without the deadline pressure of industry, without knowing how things will end, to first grope around in the dark and have the freedom to let things develop slowly and with time for reflection and a belief that everything will come to a satisfactory conclusion." His success shows that he is right, also with regard to the student training he offers. Many students value Wolfrum because he believes in them: "To believe that one is able to solve problems even though at the beginning things seem hopeless and a solution is not in sight - just by beginning and observing - and to realise that one can also learn from drawbacks," this is something Wolfrum wants his students to remember. 

Research funding is only successful in the long term

If his health allows it, then Jürgen Wolfrum might potentially extend his current senior professorship. However, for him the most important thing for the future is that the politicians don’t suddenly stop research funding initiatives such as the excellence initiative, but that such initiatives will be continued: “We will only be able to harvest the fruit of these initiatives in about 10 to 20 years’ time; so it would be disasterous not to continue such initiatives until then.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/juergen-wolfrum-crossing-the-frontiers-of-science