An interview with Nobel Laureate Erwin Neher about his research and his Lindau experience.
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Erwin Neher was director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany between 1983 and 2011 and currently heads the Emeritus Group of Membrane Biophysics. He was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Bert Sakmann for their discoveries concerning the function of single ion channels in cells.
Neher will attend the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which already will be his 13th participation in a Lindau Meeting! His lecture on Wednesday, 2 July will deal with “Short-term Synaptic Plasticity”. Gero von der Stein talked with him about his Lindau experience, his research, and the research landscape Germany.
Gero von der Stein: “Inspire” is one of the keywords in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings` leitmotif. Does Inspiration only apply to the young scientists or do the Nobel Laureates also get their share?
Erwin Neher: I can assure you that there is inspiration on both sides: It is for this reason that I will attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings this summer for the thirteenth time. If I did not feel inspired to a great extent, I would surely not spend a week of my time pro bono year after year. The Lindau Meetings are by no means a one way street where Nobel Laureates hold their lectures and the students are awestruck with respect. On the contrary, the numerous conversations with the next generation of a global scientific elite dig deeply into the everyday reality of young scientists and let me participate in the latest research findings. The enriching encounters not only occur as part of the official programme – e.g. in the discussion sessions when young scientists controversially reflect about current research findings and have a lively debate with Laureates and students alike. But equally important and inspiring are the informal talks alongside the meeting at the social events or just during the breaks. That is why the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are a fabulous forum for a real scientific exchange.
GS: At the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting the number of women has exceeded the number of men participants for the first time in the history of the meetings (52 to 48%). How do you rate the importance of fostering women in science?
EN: It is indeed great news that we have more female than male young scientists at the 2014 Lindau Meeting. Since my first attendance in the early 1990’s the meetings have seen constant adjustment regarding the gender balance. Certainly the participants’ expertise must be the critical factor for attendance but women play a key role especially in medical research and this has to be mirrored in Lindau. Science simply needs the brightest minds. There may be a difference in how women and men approach certain problems, but diversity in this respect is definitely beneficial for research. Beyond doubt the compatibility of family and work is still a problem and needs to be addressed. In Germany conditions have improved, but there is still a long way to go e.g. in expanding childcare facilities to attract even more women for a career in science. I am well aware that the number of women awarded the Nobel Prize is still very small but looking at the young generation of scientists I am sure it will increase significantly over the years to come. I am very much looking forward to meeting the laureates Ada Yonath, Elisabeth Blackburn and Francoise Barré-Sinoussi in Lindau.
GS: In your lecture at the 64th Lindau Meeting you will be talking about “Short Term Synaptic Plasticity”. What lies behind it? Is there a connection to one of the Lindau Meeting´s key topics: “transport mechanisms in cells”?
EN: The complex performance of the brain and the regulatory processes of the peripheral nervous system are highly dependent on the functioning of the ten billion nerve cells, each of which is connected by synapses to an average of approximately ten thousand other nerve cells. Unlike electronic data processing systems, these interconnections are not rigid but adapt in many ways as a function of the data flow through the neural network. In order to understand the way in which the central nervous system works, and also to understand this “plasticity,” it is essential to know not only the mechanism of signal transmission but also to explore why and how the intensities of these connections change as a function of data flow. Most neuroscientists are interested in long-term changes in the connectivity between neurons, because these are held to underlie learning and memory. My laboratory has concentrated on short-term changes, which are no less interesting, since they are part of the schemes by which the central nervous system solves basic signal processing tasks, such as adaptation, filtering, gaining control and even short-term memory. The key topic, ‘transport mechanisms’, is certainly linked to these processes, because some of the short-term changes are caused by changes in the second messenger calcium, the intracellular concentration of which is controlled by a variety of transport mechanisms. Likewise, synaptic vesicles need to be recycled during sustained neuronal activity, which requires well-controlled transport of membranes and organelles.
GS: Your discoveries on currents of single ion channels in cells and your invention of the patch-clamp technique were groundbreaking. Are you still working in this field?
EN: No, I stopped working on ion channels already in the late 1980’s and turned towards calcium signalling and neurotransmitter- and hormone release. Both phenomena are, of course, regulated by ion channels, and we study these processes on the single cell level with modifications of the technique, which we had developed for ion channel research.
GS: In 2013, Thomas C. Südhof received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Born in Germany but working in the United States, his award provoked a discussion about working conditions for scientists in Germany. You did part of your research in the US. How do you perceive the different research landscapes?
EN: Considering the different funding systems, it is quite hard to compare both landscapes.In my opinion, the best American institutions perform better than most German ones whereas the average German institutions perform better than the average American research universities. In the US system, competition is more demanding and the research landscape is more diversified than the German one with both aspects being somewhat exaggerated. In Germany we have quite a good balance between these two aspects, while the optimum might be positioned slightly more towards competition and diversity.