Roger Tsien: “All Colours of the Rainbow”

Roger Tsien was one of the most productive and creative contemporary chemists. He’d been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP”, together with Martin Chalfie and Osamu Shimomura. GFPs enable researchers to watch live cells at work: If they’re interested in a certain protein that can be expressed by an organism, they can fuse the GFP gene with the protein-encoding gene. From now on, each protein molecule can be traced through all its stages with the help of blue to ultraviolet light via fluorescence.

The advantage over many other markers is the fact that GFP is non-toxic, and also the light to see its fluorescence is non-toxic. GFPs have been widely used in many species, from yeast to insects, fish and mammals, as well as in human cells. The original GFP molecule was discovered in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. This is why Roger Tsien thanked the jellyfish in his banquet speech at the official Nobel Prize Banquet Dinner on December 10th, 2008: “So my final thanks are to both the jellyfish and corals: long may they have intact habitats in which to shine!” Some of the fluorescent dyes developed by his research group were also derived from corals, others from bacteria.

 

With the help of genetic engineering, the GFP gene can be fused to target genes that will glow in ultraviolet light - also generations later! Slide from Roger Tsien's LNLM lecture in 2010. Photo: Bastian Greshake, CC BY-SA 2.0

With the help of genetic engineering, one of this mouse’s genes was fused with the GFP gene so that it glows under ultraviolet light. Also generations later, this mouse’s offspring will shine! Slide from Roger Tsien’s Lindau lecture in 2010. Photo: Bastian Greshake, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Already as a PhD student of physiology in Cambridge, UK, Roger Tsien had developed his first tracking dyes for calcium activity in living cells. He hadn’t told his PhD supervisor about his new research adventure because he was sure that he would only explain how important it was to finish one project before starting a new one. Some of these dyes are still used today, like BAPTA and Fura-2; the latter was developed when Tsien had already become an assistant professor at the Department of Physiology-Anatomy at Berkeley.

After his move to UCSD in San Diego in 1989, mostly for better lab equipment, the Tsien group found fluorescent indicators that “glow in all colours of the rainbow”, as the Nobel Prize committee wrote. Over the years, his research group has also developed fluorescent indicators for ions like magnesium, copper, iron, lead, cadmium, and many more.

From an early age, Roger Tsien had been fascinated with the chemistry of colours. “I’ve always been attracted to colours,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune when he learned that he had ben awarded the Nobel Prize. “If I had been born colour-blind, I probably never would have gone into this.” And in his autobiography for the website Nobelprize.org he wrote how his first chemical experiments in the basement of his parent’s house in Livingston, New Jersey, reflect “an early and long-lasting obsession with pretty colours”. He captions this essay with the following joke: “What do elementary school pupils and Nobel Laureates have in common? They both have to write autobiographical essays on command.”

 

 

Roger Tsien’s father was an aviation engineer with a degree from MIT, but couldn’t find a suitable job because as a Chinese, he didn’t get the necessary security clearance. After several different jobs, he found work in the vaccum tube division of RCA, Radio Corporation of America, in New Jersey. When his parents wanted to buy a house in New Jersey, the developer wouldn’t sell it to them because they were Chinese, fearing that other families wouldn’t buy property next to them. His parents wrote to the New Jersey governor to complain, and the governor in turn wrote to the developer that racial discrimination was illegal. Not only could the Tsien family then buy the house – years later, the same developer used Roger’s photo as the winner of the nationwide Westinghouse Science Talent Search to advertise how good the Livingston schools were.

Only sixteen years old, much younger than most other contestants, Roger Tsien had written up his results from an NSF-sponsored summer programme at Ohio University that he had attended in the summer of 1967, his “first exposure to a research environment”. He was assigned a project where he had to analyse how metals bind to thiocyanate. “For lack of any alternatives, I wrote up my Ohio University project, trying my best to draw some conclusions from a mess of dubious data.” To his own surprise, Roger Tsien won the first prize.

 

San Diego beach scene drawn with an eight colour palette of bacterial colonies expressing fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and the red-fluorescent coral protein. Artwork by Nathan Shaner, photography by Paul Steinbach, created in the lab of Roger Tsien in 2006. Credit: Nathan Shaner, CC BY-SA 3.0

San Diego beach scene drawn with an eight colour palette of bacterial colonies expressing fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and red-fluorescent coral protein. Artwork by Nathan Shaner, photo by Paul Steinbach, created in the lab of Roger Tsien in 2006. Credit: Nathan Shaner, CC BY-SA 3.0

The same year, he started college at Harvard University with a scholarship, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and physics, followed by a PhD in physiology from the University of Cambridge – and a productive career in the lab discovering and applying fluorescent dyes. Roger Tsien came to five Lindau Meetings, and the five lectures he gave demonstrate his wide interest in many scientific topics. In his 2015 lecture for instance (see above video), he explains his recent interest in two seemingly very different research areas: cancer therapy and long-term memory storage. But interestingly, both topics touch upon the same enzymes called proteases: enzymes that can cut proteins. Tsien himself explains his motivation for cancer research with the fact that his father died of pancreatic cancer. Together with medical doctor Quyen T. Nguyen he developed ‘fluorescence-guided surgery’ that helps the surgeon not only to find most cancer cells around a tumour, but also to preserve as many nerves and other important structures as possible.

The second topic of his 2015 lecture concerns memory storage in the perineuronal net, or PNN, an extracellular matrix structure that stabilises the adult brain. After a lifetime of studying intracellular activities, “here I’m forced to learn about extracellular matrix!” Tsien said in 2015. ‘Holes’ in the PNN act as the storage medium, “like a 3D punch card”, he explains, only to realise that today’s young scientists have never handled a punch card. In a mouse model, he was able to delete many long-term memories with the help of a certain matrix metalloproteinase, or MMP. He expects an even larger deletion share if more enzymes involved are understood. Sounds like the ‘neuralyzer’ from the Men in Black movies that can delete memories, doesn’t it?

On August 24th, 2016 Roger Tsien died unexpectedly on a bike trail in Eugene, Oregon, aged only 64. On this day, the world lost a brilliant scientist as well as a wonderful person with a great sense of humour.

 

Roger Tsien with young scientists on the annual boat trip to Mainau island on the last day of the 2009 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to chemistry. Photo: Christian Flemming

Roger Tsien (1952 – 2016) with young scientists on the annual boat trip to Mainau island on the last day of the 2009 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to chemistry. Photo: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Roger Tsien über Leuchtfarben, Quallen und Korallen

Roger Tsien gehörte zweifellos zu den kreativsten und produktivsten Forschern der Gegenwart. Er erhielt den Chemienobelpreis 2008 „für die Entdeckung und Entwicklung des grün fluoreszierenden Proteins GFP“, gemeinsam mit Martin Chalfie und Osamu Shimomura. Mit der Hilfe von GFP können Forscher lebene Zellen in Echtzeit bei ihrer ganz normalen Zellaktivität beobachten. Haben sie an einem bestimmten Protein Interesse, das ein Organismus herstellen kann, können sie das GFP-Gen mit jenem Gen verbinden, das genau dieses Protein herstellt. Ab diesem Moment kann der ganze Weg dieses Proteins verfolgt werden, weil es unter blauem oder ultravioletten Licht leuchtet, also fluoresziert.

Die Vorteile gegenüber anderern Markierungsmethoden liegt auf der Hand: GFP ist für den Organismus ungifitig, und auch das Licht, das man braucht um es zu sehen, ist unschädlich, anders als beispielsweise radioaktive Strahlung. GFPs und ähnliche fluoreszierende Marker sind schon in zahlreiche Organismen eingefügt worden, von Hefepilzen über Fische und Insekten bis hin zu Säugetieren und menschlichen Zellkulturen. Ursprünglich stammt das GFP-Gen von der Qualle Aeguorea victoria, daher bedankte sich Tsien in seiner Festrede beim offiziellen Nobelpreisbankett am 10. Dezember 2008 in Stockholm bei diesem Tier: „Meine letzte Danksagung gilt sowohl den Quallen als auch den Korallen: Möget ihr für lange Zeit intakte Habitate haben, in denen ihr ungestört leuchten könnt!“ Weitere Fluoreszensmarker stammen nämlich von Korallen, andere wiederum von speziellen Bakterien.

 

Ein Gen dieser Maus ist dem GFP-Gen markiert worden. Nun leuchtet sie grün unter ultrabviolettem Licht - und alle ihre Nachkommen! Die Abbildung stammt aus dem 2010er Vortrag von Roger Tsien in Lindau. Foto: Bastian Greshake, CC BY-SA 2.0

Ein Gen dieser Maus ist dem GFP-Gen markiert worden. Nun leuchtet sie grün unter ultrabviolettem Licht – und alle ihre Nachkommen! Die Abbildung stammt aus dem 2010er Vortrag von Roger Tsien in Lindau. Foto: Bastian Greshake, CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Bereits als Physiologie-Doktorand in Cambridge in Großbritannien entwickelte Roger Tsien seine ersten Farbstoffe, zunächst für die Kennzeichnung der Kalziumaktivität in Zellen. Sicherheitshalber hatte er seinem Doktorvater nichts von seinem neuen Steckenpferd erzählt, weil er befürchten musste, dieser würde ihm einen langen Vortrag darüber halten, wie wichtig es sei, zuerst das eine Projekt abzuschließen bevor man das nächste beginnt. Manche dieser Farbstoffe werden heute noch verwendet, zum Beispiel BAPTA und Fura-2; letzteren entwickelte Tsien als Assistenzprofessor in Berkeley.

Im Jahr 1989 wechselte er dann an die University of California in San Diego, in erster Linie wegen der deutlich besseren Laborausstattung dort. In den folgenden Jahren entwickelte seine Arbeitsgruppe zahlreiche Fluoreszenzfarbstoffe die “in allen Farben des Regenbogens leuchten”, so das Nobelpreiskomitee in Stockholm. Seine Forschungsgruppe fand außerdem Fluoreszenzindikatoren für zahlreiche Ionen wie Kupfer, Magnesium, Eisen, Blei, Kadmium und viele weitere.

Anlässlich der Nobelpreisverleihung 2008 erzählte er der Zeitung San Diego Union-Tribune, dass er schon als Kind von Farben fasziniert war. „Wäre ich farbenblind auf die Welt gekommen, hätte ich mir bestimmt ein anderes Thema gesucht.“ Schon als Schulkind führte er im Keller seiner Eltern in Livingston, New Jersey zahlreiche chemische Experimente durch, so schreibt er in seinem autobiografischen Essay für die Website Nobelprize.org, und auch damals motivierte ihn „eine frühe und langanhaltende Begeisterung für schöne Farben“. Am Anfang dieses Essays steht ein Witz: „Was haben Grundschüler und Nobelpreisträger gemeinsam? Beide müssen auf Knopfdruck autobiografische Aufsätze schreiben.“

 

Roger Tsien giving his 2014 lecture at the 64. Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Photo: Rolf Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Roger Tsien giving his 2014 lecture at the 64. Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Photo: Rolf Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Roger Tsiens Vater war ein Luftfahrtingenieur, der in den USA keine passende Anstellung finden konnte, trotz eines Abschluss von der amerikanischen Eliteuniversität MIT, weil er als Chinese keine Sicherheitsfreigabe bekam. Nach verschiedenen Jobs fand er schließlich eine Anstellung in der Abteilung für Vakuumröhren der Firma RCA, kurz für Radio Corporation of America, in New Jersey. Nun wollten die Eltern ein Haus in der Nähe kaufen, Roger war zu dieser Zeit sieben Jahre alt. Doch der Bauunternehmer wollte ihnen das Haus ihrer Wahl nicht verkaufen mit dem Argument, dann würden die anderen Häuser unverkäuflich, weil niemand neben Chinesen wohnen wollte. Daraufhin schrieb das Ehepaar Tsien einen Brief an den Gouverneur von New Jersey, der wiederum dem Bauunternehmer schriftlich mitteilte, dass Diskriminierung aufgrund der Herkunft in den USA illegal sei. So kam die Familie Tsien schließlich zu ihrem Haus.

Und nur neun Jahre später machte derselbe Bauunternehmer mit einem Foto von Roger Tsien Werbung für seine Häuser! Anlass war der erste Preis eines landesweiten Forschungswettbewerbs, den der sechzehnjährige Roger gewonnen hatte. Der Bauunternehmer wollte mit seinem Foto für die guten öffentlichen Schulen werben, dabei hatte sich Roger die anorganische Chemie anhand von Lehrbüchern überwiegend selbst beigebracht. Für den Westinghouse-Talentwettbewerb hatte er die Ergebnisse eines kleinen Projekts zusammengefasst, das er im Rahmen eines NSF-Nachwuchsprogramms an der Ohio University durchführen durfte. Er hatte dort die Aufgabe zu erforschen, wie sich verschiedene Metalle an Thiocyanate binden. „Weil ich nichts anderes vorzuweisen hatte, versuchte ich, aus dem Chaos unklarer Daten irgendwelche Schlüsse zu ziehen,“ schrieb er bescheiden im Nachhinein. Zu seiner großen Überraschung gewann er damit den ersten Preis.

 

Kunst aus der Petrischale: Mit verschiedenen fluoreszierenden Bakterien hat Nathan Shaner im Jahr 2006 im Labor von Roger Tsien in San Diego eine Strandszene in eine Petrischale 'gemalt'. Verwendet werden Farbstoffe, die auf dem GFP-Gen basieren, sowie Korallenfarbstoffe. Photo: Paul Steinbach, Credit: Nathan Shaner, CC BY-SA 3.0

Kunst aus der Petrischale: Mit verschiedenen fluoreszierenden Bakterien hat Nathan Shaner im Jahr 2006 im Labor von Roger Tsien eine Strandszene in eine Petrischale ‘gemalt’; das Labor befindet sich in San Diego, daher das Motiv. Verwendet wurden Farbstoffe, die auf dem GFP-Gen basieren, sowie Korallenfarbstoffe. Photo: Paul Steinbach, Credit: Nathan Shaner, CC BY-SA 3.0

Im selben Jahr, mit gerade mal 16 Jahren, begann Roger Tsien mit Hilfe eines Stipendiums in Harvard zu studieren. Mit einem Bachelor of Science in Chemie und Physik schloss er dieses Studium ab und ging nach England, um dort im Fach Physiologie zu promovieren. Er interessierte sich für die Schnittstelle zwischen Chemie und Biologie und wollte sich nicht auf ein Fach festlegen. Danach entfaltete sich seine unglaublich produktive Forscherkarriere. Roger Tsien nahm an fünf Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertreffen teil, und seine fünf Vorträge dort spiegeln sein breites Interesse an verschiedenen Forschungsthemen wider. In seinem 2015er Vortrag beispielsweise sprach er über zwei ganz unterschiedliche Themen: Krebsforschung und Langzeitgedächtnis. Auch wenn beide Themen scheinbar nichts mit einander zu tun haben, so handeln doch beide auf molekularer Ebene von Proteasen, also von Enzymen, die andere Proteine spalten können. Tsien selbst erklärt, dass seine Motivation, sich mit Krebsforschung zu beschäftigen durch den Krebstod seines Vaters ausgelöst wurde. Gemeinsam mit dem Arzt Quyen T. Nguyen entwickelte er eine fluoreszensgestützten Operationstechnik, bei der nicht nur alle Tumorzellen eingefärbt werden, damit der Chirurg sie möglichst vollständig entfernen kann, sondern auch alle wichtigen Strukturen wie Nerven, die nicht verletzt werden dürfen, gefärbt werden.

Das zweite Thema seines Vortrags war die Speicherung von Langzeiterinnerungen im sogenannten Perineuronalen Netz, kurz PNN, das als Matrix zwischen den Zellen für die Stabilität des erwachsenen menschlichen Gehirns sorgt. Nachdem Tsien sich sein ganzes Forscherleben hindurch mit Vorgängen innerhalb von Zellen befasst hat, „musste ich mich jetzt plötzlich mit der extrazellulärer Matrix beschäftigen“, ergänzte er in seinem Vortrag. Löcher in der PNN sind die eigentlichen Speichermedien, „wie in einer 3D Lochkarte“ – erst da wurde ihm klar, dass die meisten Nachwuchsforscher im Raum noch nie eine Lochkarte benutzt hatten. Im Mausmodell gelang ihm, ungefähr die Hälfte aller Langzeiterinnerungen durch die Gabe einer bestimmten Matrix-Metalloprotease (MMP) zu löschen. Er geht davon aus, dass ein deutlich größerer Anteil gelöscht werden kann, wenn die weiteren beteiligten Proteasen bekannt sind. Klingt ein bisschen nach dem ‘Neuralyzer’ aus dem Film Men in Black, oder?

Am 24. August 2016 starb Roger Tsien völlig unerwartet auf einem Radwanderweg in Eugene, Oregon im Alter von nur 64 Jahren. An diesem Tag verlor die Welt einen genialen Forscher sowie eine faszinierende Persönlichkeit mit einem großartigen Sinn für Humor.

 

Roger Tsien (1952 - 2016) während der traditionellen Bootsfahrt zur Insel Mainau am letzten Tag des Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertreffens 2009. Foto: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Roger Tsien (1952 – 2016) mit Nachwuchsforschern während der traditionellen Bootsfahrt zur Insel Mainau am letzten Tag des Lindauer Nobelpreisträgertreffens 2009. Foto: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Marie Curie’s American Adventure

Thanks to a lucky twist of fate, Marie Meloney, a prominent American journalist, took it into her head to persuade Nobel Laureate Marie Curie to do an interview with her and refused to be put off by Curie’s stubborn refusal. Meloney had started her career in journalism at the Washington Post at the age of just 15, worked as a correspondent for the Denver Post at 18 and was later the editor of various major magazines. She also hosted glamorous receptions, had political ambitions and was a feminist. Meloney was a confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt, who admired her for her determination.

Marie Curie in her chemistry laboratory at the Radium Institute in France, April 1921.

Marie Curie in her chemistry laboratory at the Radium Institute in France, April 1921. Source: Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands / No known copyright restrictions

When the long-desired meeting with Curie finally took place in 1920, despite her 20 years experience as a journalist, Meloney’s courage initially failed her: “The door opened and I saw a pale, timid little woman … with the saddest face I had ever looked upon. (…) Suddenly I felt like an intruder.”

Meloney perceived Curie as ‘helpless’ and took refuge in a discussion about the admiration of American women for her work. Without beating about the bush, Marie Curie got straight to the topic closest to her heart: radium. She knew the precise locations in America where a great deal of it was available. Meloney was completely astonished by the spartan working conditions of the two-time Nobel Laureate. Pierre and Marie Curie had registered no patents and had decided that their research findings should be available to all of humanity and not individuals. This meant that they were reliant on other sources of income.

During the interview Marie Meloney asked a question that went on to have far-reaching consequences: What would Marie Curie wish for, if she could wish for anything? The answer came without hesitation: a gram of radium! The reason for this was that the entire radium stocks of her French institute were used for medical applications, and Marie Curie was literally empty-handed.

Meloney devised a cunning plan: a gram of radium had a market value of 100,000 dollars in the USA – and she would raise the money for it. When an initial attempt to raise the money privately failed, Meloney launched the fundraising campaign later known as the “Marie Curie Radium Fund”, which was aimed at all American women who wanted to support Marie Curie’s work. And one year after the visit, the necessary funds had been raised.

Meloney-with-Irene-Marie-and-Eve_Curie-1921

Meloney, left, with Irène, Marie and Ève Curie. Credits: Public Domain

Meloney wrote to Curie and asked her to come to the USA and receive the gift in person. Warren Harding, the President of the United States of America, would present her with the radium himself. Her daughters could accompany her, and every attempt would be made to shield them from too much publicity. What the publicity-shy scientist feared most was to be paraded in public as an individual. Curie had single-mindedly avoided public appearances up to then; life for her was all about science and her family. But this was an offer she could not refuse, so at the age of 54 she embarked on her first major official trip abroad in spring 1921. A jubilant crowd and a horde of photographers awaited her on her arrival in New York.

The generous donors to the Radium Fund were women of very different origins and class – Curie was feted as a cancer healer, a role model for female scientists and a working mom. Marie Curie was an ideal representative of the type of woman with whom women in America identified in the 1920s. Her veneration in the academic world, which was also strongly masculine in its orientation in America, did not detract from this: Marie Curie was showered with honorary doctorates and other awards. Although Harvard – unlike Yale – denied her this honour, the majority of American academics could not understand why Marie Curie was not similarly honoured and supported in France.

The schedule for the visit proved to be a heavy burden on the scientist, whose state of health was already very frail, and her host and the press were concerned about her. Her modest appearance and cerebral air seemed to fuel the enthusiasm for her even more, however. The most important commitments, which Curie was unable to fulfil herself, were assumed by her daughters Irène and Ève.

The tour started with visits to women’s colleges and the crowds of enthusiastic female students who feted Curie, and an overwhelming reception in Carnegie Hall. Marie Curie entered the event to the thunderous applause of over 3,500 members of the International Federation of University Women. The French and Polish ambassadors were also in attendance. This was followed by a party at the Waldorf Astoria with over 500 representatives of scientific organisations – all before the presentation of the gift on 20 May 1921 at the White House.

Marie Curie with President Warren Harding at the White House in Washington DC. Credits: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Marie Curie with President Warren Harding at the White House in Washington DC. Credits: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Every trick in the publicity book was used for the presentation ceremony: Marie Curie entered on the arm of President Warren Harding and was presented with a parchment scroll (the deed of donation) and silk scarf tied with a small key – the key to the casket containing the radium; the latter was fake, however, as the radium remained in the factory so that it did not pose a threat to anyone present. In his address, President Warren Harding referred to Marie Curie as a “…noble creature, the devoted wife and loving mother who, aside from her crushing toil, had fulfilled all the duties of womanhood”. Curie thanked him for his kind words saying she had been honoured “… as no woman has ever been honoured in America before”.

Marie Curie’s trip to the USA was a great personal success and undoubtedly made an important contribution to providing security for her further scientific work, her institute and all the young researchers working there. It also gave her greater latitude in her private life. In her biography of her mother, Ève Curie wrote: “I believe the journey to America taught my mother something. It had shown her that the voluntary isolation in which she confined herself was paradoxical. (…) Marie was responsible for a new science and a new system of therapeutics. The prestige of her name was such that by a simple gesture, by the mere act of being present, she could assure the success of some project of general interest that was dear to her.”

Thanks to Marie Meloney, Marie Curie enjoyed greater fortune in the following years and the two women remained friends for life. In May 1922 Marie Curie became a member of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation and was its Vice-President until 1934. During her 12 years of activity for this League of Nations’ committee she supported, among other things, the establishment of an international bibliography of scientific publications and a copyright system for scientists and their inventions.

A video presenting an overview of Marie Curie’s life and scientific achievements is available in the Mediatheque.


Madame Curie. A Biography, Ève Curie

A Devotion to their Science. Pioneer Women in Radioactivity, Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham

Marie Curie. A Life, Susan Quinn

The private lives of Science’s first family. Marie Curie and her daughters, Shelley Emling

 

Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies passed away

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings mourn the death of Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Oliver Smithies. He died on Tuesday, 10 January at the age of 91. Smithies was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007 alongside Mario Cappecchi and Martin Evans “for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells”. Oliver Smithies was a prolific inventor and devised the method of using potato starch as medium for electrophoresis gel. During his four participations in Lindau Meetings he was especially beloved by the young scientists. For them, his lectures have always been an incredible source of inspiration regardless of their scientific discipline.

To learn more about the life of Oliver Smithies, visit his profile in the mediatheque. A virtual tour through his lab and workshop is available as part of the Nobel Labs 360° series.

 

Oliver Smithies at his discussion session in Lindau 2010. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Oliver Smithies at his discussion session in Lindau 2010. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Smithies with his wife Prof. Nobuyo Maeda at the

Smithies with his wife Prof. Nobuyo Maeda at the “Discoveries” exhibition on Mainau Island in 2010. Photo: Ch Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

Sharing advice and inspiration with young scientists. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Sharing advice and inspiration with young scientists. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

A dedicated hobby aviator, Oliver Smithies always kept looking for new horizons. Photo: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

A dedicated hobby pilot, Oliver Smithies always kept looking for new horizons. Photo: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

 

Obituary for Roman Herzog (1934 – 2017)

Roman Herzog was the first German President to visit a Lindau Meeting in 1995. “Since then we have known him as a loyal and also scrutinising companion. He has encouraged us to further develop the meetings boldly and purposefully,“ said Countess Bettina Bernadotte, President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, when she presentend the Lennart Bernadotte Medal to Roman Herzog in 2010. The award ceremony was held at Jagsthausen Castle near Heilbronn, where Herzog lived with his wife Alexandra Freifrau von Berlichingen.

 

Roman Herzog (left) 2001 in Lindau alongside former CEO and chairman of NOvartis AG Daniel Vasella. Photo: Peter Badge/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Roman Herzog (left) 2001 in Lindau alongside former CEO and chairman of Novartis AG Daniel Vasella. Photo: Peter Badge/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Herzog knew and appreciated the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings from his time as minister for education and cultural affairs of the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg in the late 1970s. He shared Count Lennart Bernadotte’s vision and lifetime achievement. Starting in 1999, after his presidency, Herzog increased his active support for the meetings that invite many Nobel Laureates and hundreds of young scientists to Lake Constance each year, to exchange knowledge, ideas, and experience, to hear inspiring lectures and take part in lively discussions. But in the late 1990s, the need to reform the meetings became obvious: they required a more solid financial footing, and they also needed to become more visible in Germany and abroad, plus they were supposed to develop into a European flagship project for science promotion.

“The establishment of the Lindau Foundation, inspired by Roman Herzog, was the crucial milestone to give the Lindau dialogue a sustainable and longterm perspective,” Countess Bernadotte continued. On the one hand, he developed ideas and plans to render the Lindau Meetings more future-proof. On the other, he introduced distinguished professionals to the Council that soon would play a crucial role in reinventing the Lindau Meetings, namely Wolfgang Schürer and Thomas Ellerbeck. In 1999, Ellerbeck headed the personal office of Roman Herzog. As a member of the Council since 2000, and subsequently of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, one of his tasks was to heighten the profile of the meetings and explain them to a broader public.

Professor Wolfang Schürer served the meetings as Chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Directors from 2000 to 2015. After the foundation was established late in the year 2000, Roman Herzog became its Honorary President, as well as a member of its Honorary Senate. “His unique way to approach topics and to apply himself has always impressed me profoundly, be it as our Federal President or in his support for the Lindau Meetings,” Countess Bettina remembers. “Encountering this brilliant, modest and witty man in person was always very inspiring.”

 

Roman Herzog (right) with Nobel Laureate Zhores Alferov in Lindau in 2001. Photo: Zhores Alferov

Roman Herzog (right) with Nobel Laureate Zhores Alferov in Lindau in 2001. Photo: Peter Badge/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

When people talk or write about Roman Herzog today, they never fail to mention his legendary speech in 1997, in which he said that the Germans needed a ‘jolt’ to leave their comfort zone, and that they had to say goodbye to some aspects of their beloved status quo: “We need more flexibility! In the 21st century knowledge society, we need lifelong learning and new skills. And we have to get used to the idea that we may pursue two, three or even four different careers in our lifetime.” Nowadays this topic still seems important, but by now many people have become used to career changes. But almost twenty years ago, this speech was considered ‘disruptive’ and much debated – and it’s still being quoted. Already in the mid-1990s, Herzog emphasised the importance of an inter-cultural dialogue between Western and Islamic countries. Inter-cultural dialogue is also one of the hallmarks of the Lindau Meetings where young and experienced scientists from different nations, cultures and religions interact.

Roman Herzog cared deeply about science, technical and economic innovation, as well as about educating the young. As a former German Federal President, and also as a former President of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, he had numerous assignments and functions in Germany and abroad, and he supported the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings actively. “The Nobel Laureates, all members of the Lindau committees, and the Bernadotte family are very grateful to him,” says Countess Bettina Bernadotte.

Roman Herzog died on 10 January 2017. In this time of mourning, we extend our deep sympathy to his wife and family.

Exploring the Connections Between Sports and Science with Kurt Wüthrich

When reading the biography of Nobel Laureate Kurt Wüthrich, it quickly becomes clear that he embodies the concept of a Renaissance man. Not only did he excel in academic work, winning the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his advancement of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, but Wüthrich was also an avid sportsman.

As a young man attending the University of Basel, he worked towards degrees in both chemistry and sports — the latter requiring about 25 hours per week of intense physical exercise, as well as courses in human anatomy and physiology. Even though he chose science in the end, sports continued to play an important role in Wüthrich’s life. He enjoyed skiing, fishing, and even played in a competitive soccer league well beyond the age of 50.

Kurt Wüthrich speaking at #LiNo16

Kurt Wüthrich speaking at #LiNo16. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Given his interdisciplinary background, it came as no surprise that much of his master class at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting focused on the science of sports. In fact, two young scientists who gave talks at the master class — Dominique Gisin and Bettina Heim — have been blessed with a similar combination of both mental and physical talents as Wüthrich himself.

Dominique Gisin, currently a Bachelor’s student in physics at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, spoke about the mechanics of alpine skiing and its impact on the human body. Gisin started her degree at the University of Basel but interrupted coursework to concentrate on skiing, making her Alpine Ski World Cup debut in 2005. Four years later, she got her first World Cup victory in women’s downhill skiing, and at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, nabbed a gold medal in the same event.

To start off her talk, she played a series of video clips depicting the many crashes and falls she has suffered throughout her storied career, as the audience winced. In an average year, about 35% of all alpine athletes are injured — Gisin herself has gone through knee surgery a whopping nine times as a result of injuries.

In terms of physics, the variables that matter when it comes to modeling the dynamics of a downhill skier are numerous: the mass of the athlete, her velocity, the radius of a turn, snow temperature, air temperature, course condition, the mechanical characteristics of the equipment, visibility, and the mental/physical state of the athlete. These factors need to be considered when thinking about how to lower the rate of injury for the sport.

For instance, a tighter course setting would help reduce the athlete’s velocity, which could make crashes and falls less dangerous. But as Gisin notes, such a change would also cause skiers to move closer to the nets and potentially get tangled up in them. Another idea that might be interesting to pursue is uniform “anti-aerodynamic” racing suits that reduce athletes’ velocity and provide increased protection. Also, as seen in other sports, alpine skiing could benefit from the development of better protection equipment such as helmets and back protectors.

Kurt Wüthrich and Bettina Heim at the Rolex Science Breakfast

Kurt Wüthrich and Bettina Heim at the Rolex Science Breakfast. Photo: Ch. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Also representing ETH Zürich at the master class was Bettina Heim, a Master’s candidate in physics with a background in competitive figure skating. Her achievements in the sport include competing at two World Junior Championships, two World Championships, and becoming Swiss national champion in 2011. Only a short time after, Heim decided to hang up her skates and study physics full-time.

Her Bachelor’s studies culminated in a paper published by the prestigious journal Science in 2015, titled “Quantum versus classical annealing of Ising spin glasses.” It shows that evidence of quantum speed-up may depend on how the problem is described, as well as how the optimization routine is implemented. Today, Heim continues her research in the field of quantum computing, mostly in the realm of adiabatic quantum computing and quantum error correction, at ETH Zürich’s Institute of Theoretical Physics.

However, her focus during Wüthrich’s master class remained firmly in the world of sport and not quantum computers — in particular, she discussed the physics behind her specialty of figure skating. For instance, an athlete must gain a lot of speed going into a spin, and then one side of the body has to stop so the other can pass. This translates velocity into rotation, which results in the many types of spin moves performed by figure skaters.

As in downhill skiing, injuries remain prevalent in figure skating despite not being a contact sport. Common injuries for skaters include stress fractures, acute injuries involving tendons or ligaments, and back injuries. Heim noted that back injuries often originate from jump impacts (which can be hard on the spinal discs) and extreme positions that require flexibility (tough on muscles and ligaments).

As Wüthrich’s fascinating master class reiterated, the connections between sports and science go way beyond the physics of motion. Sometimes, an athlete and a scientist can be found within the same person.

Nobel Prize in Physics 2016: “Weird and wonderful ideas”

The famous call from Stockholm reaches scientists in very different cirumstances: Some take the call that will change their life in the middle of the night, like Bruce Beutler; others miss the call because they’re in an airplane, like Hiroshi Amano. Michael Kosterlitz, however, took the famous call from Adam Smith, chief scientific officer of Nobel Media, in an underground carpark outside Helsinki. His first reaction was – silence. Listening to the recording of this phone call, everybody thinks that maybe the reception underground is as bad as Kosterlitz predicted. Then: “Jesus. That’s incredible…. that’s amazing!” Continue reading

Ten Astonishing Facts About Longevity

Constant rise in life expectancy after 1840: in early years, the most gains were achieved by reducing child mortality. In the mid-19th century, infectious diseases  were fought with vaccines, in the 20th century with antibiotics. Source: US National Institute on Aging, data from the Human Mortality Database

Constant rise in life expectancy after 1840: In early years, the most gains were achieved by reducing child mortality. In the mid-19th century, infectious diseases were fought with vaccines, and in the 20th century with the help of antibiotics. Source: US National Institute on Aging, data from the Human Mortality Database

In developed countries, life expectancy is still increasing linearly at a rate of about three months per year for women, and at a slightly lower rate for men. And also developing countries have witnessed considerable increases since the mid-20th century, albeit with setbacks like the HIV epidemic in Africa.
This trend has been evident since the mid-19th century – and it has sparked a longstanding scientific debate: Will this trend continue indefinitely into the future? Or is there a biological limit to human life? The latest contribution to this debate is a statistical study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

 

1. Most increases not in oldest age group

In this study, Jan Vijg, a Dutch-American geneticist, and his team analysed data from the Human Mortality Database that spans 38 countries and is run by American and German researchers. Since life expectancy increase is still strong, the researchers needed other theories and data if they are searching for indicators of a future slowdown. Their theory was: If there is no upper lifespan limit, the age group with the biggest increase in survival should get older continually. But contrary to this assumption, the largest increase in survival rates has plateaued around the age of 99 in 1980, and has only increased very slightly since. They interpred this plateau effect as an early sign of slowdown.

 

2. Supercentenarians rarely older than 115

To further test their theories, Dr. Vijg’s team also used data from the International Database on Longevity from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. Watch out! Now the ages of lucky individuals are analysed, whereas before, increases in age groups were studied. Jan Vijg’s team found that the maximum age reached by individuals plateaued at 115 years in the mid-1990s, with very few, yet famous, exceptions. The researchers see this as another sign of slowdown. “It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling,” says Jan Vijg. “From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115.”

 

3. Japan is different

Interestingly enough, the longevity database used by the Vijg team was assembled at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, that is also one of the main contributers to the Human Mortality Database. But James Vaupel, founding director of this institute, doesn’t share Dr. Vijg’s interpretation. One of his objections is that in Japan, the age group enjoying the fastest growth is still getting older; this holds true for a few other developed countries as well. As James Vaupel wrote in an earlier paper, together with Jim Oeppen: Experts asserting that “life expectancy is approaching a ceiling … have repeatedly been proven wrong.”

 

Every third baby born in Britain today has a good chance of celebrating its 100th birthday, according to the Office for National Statistics ONS. Photo: iStock.com/David Freund

Every third baby born in Britain today has a good chance of celebrating its 100th birthday, according to the Office for National Statistics ONS. Photo: iStock.com/David Freund

4. Highest life expectancy, lowest birthrate

Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world and thus is of special interest to demographers: currently 86.8 years for women and 80.5 years for men. Japan also has one of the lowest birthrates. A web population clock from Tokyo University predicts that the last Japanese child will be born in the year 3,776 if this latter trend is not reversed – meaning that the Japanese will die out about one hundred years later. Some estimates suggest that by the year 2050, up to one million centenarians will live in Japan.

 

5. Can ageing be reversed?

In all other species, lifespans can be increased by genetic interventions, certain proteins or dietary changes. Several teams at James Vaupel’s institute in Rostock conduct research on these topics with different model animals, as well as many other research teams worldwide. So why should humans be an exception? “There is no time bomb that explodes at a certain age,” says Linda Partridge, director at the Max Planck Intitute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne, Germany, who is also specialising in strategies to influence ageing processes. In recent years, ageing in mice could be reversed with telomerase, and similar experiments were conducted successfully with human cells.

 

6. Animals that never age

There are some animals that don’t age. The biologist and mathematician Prof. Annette Baudisch for instance studied species like this, for instance robins and the freshwater polyp Hydra vulgaris, i.e. their mortality rate doesn’t increase with age, and they retain similar levels of health throughout their lives. Unfortunately, humans don’t belong in this group, the same holds true for most lab animals. But these surprising species may have some traits that could point to strategies against ageing as we know it in humans; human ageing comprises many factors: the slowdown of biological processes, the shrinking of organs, the deposit of lipofuscin, the accumulation of genetic mutations, etc.

 

Rita Levi Montalcini was an Italian neurobiologist who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of nerve growth factor, together with Stanley Cohen. She celebrated her 103rd birthday in 2012 and died the same year. Photo: Peter Badge

Rita Levi Montalcini was an Italian neurobiologist who received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of nerve growth factor, together with Stanley Cohen. She celebrated her 103rd birthday in April 2012. Photo: Peter Badge

7. Game changer: advances in medicine

Several researchers argue that Jan Vijg’s team didn’t take the medical advances of the future into account, that might target the afore mentioned ageing processes, as well many deadly diseases. “The result in this paper is absolutely correct, but it says nothing about the potential of future medicine, only the performance of today’s and yesterday’s medicine,” says biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View, California. Conversely, potentially negative trends like the global obesity epidemic, with the side effects of soaring type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease numbers, are also not taken into account.

 

8. New trends lower life expectancy

Even today, the increase in life expectancy is being reversed in developed countries for certain groups. As Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and Prof. Anne Case showed, white middle-aged Americans without college degrees are dying younger than in the past. For all other ethnic groups, life expectancy is still rising in the US, but for this group it’s falling. The researchers could also explain how prescription drug abuse, alcohol and suicide shortens the lives of too many middle-aged Americans.

 

9. Centenarians are exceptions, not examples

Centenarians seem to be quite an exceptional group, as a recent German study showed, again: One third of the patients over 100 years of age didn’t show any signs of dementia, three quarters were not depressed, almost a quarter didn’t take any drugs on a regular basis, and an astounding 65 percent hadn’t been admitted to hospital in the last twelve months. If this group is so healthy, gerontological research might learn a lot from them – but because they’re so special, maybe they’re not the best group to predict everyone’s ageing process.

 

10. Longer life due to Nobel prize

Winning the Nobel prize adds one or two years of life expectancy. The British economists Matthew Rablen and Andrew Oswald wrote: “It has been known for centuries that the rich and famous have longer lives than the poor and ordinary,” but the causality behind that remained unclear. That’s why they looked for cases where a sudden rise in status occured, and biographical data were also available: they found Nobel Laureates. And really: the positive status shock of winning a Nobel prize adds one or two years compared to researchers of the same age and from the same country who were merely nominated for this prestigious prize.

 

Only time and future studies will tell if humanity has already reached an ‘age ceiling’ – or not. But if we consider quality of life together with the quantity of years, it becomes evident that adding years doesn’t automatically mean more healthy years. On the contrary, additional years often mean more years of disease. This is why Jan Vijg wrote in his study that we should pay more attention to our  ‘health span’ instead of concentrating solely on our lifespan.

 

Exercise is a vital ingredient both to longevity and to healthy ageing. Others are: normal weight, a diet rich in fibres and low in sugar and red meat - and meeting people, having fun and playing games to ward off dementia. Photo: iStock.com/Horsche

Exercise is a vital ingredient both to longevity and to healthy ageing. Others are: normal weight, a diet rich in fibres and low in sugar and red meat – and meeting people, having fun and playing games to ward off dementia. Photo: iStock.com/Horsche