The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings - "I am impressed by the competence, curiosity and energy of the young participants!"

This article was published in Newsletter issue 21, June 2013

This summer, it will be the sixteenth time you are attending a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. What has made you become that loyal to them?
It is a pleasure to talk to all these young and enthusiastic student participants, and a unique opportunity to meet old friends among the Nobel Prize winners and to discuss items of mutual interest. It is the unconstrained atmosphere that distinguishes the Lindau Meetings from common scientific conferences and largely accounts for their appeal – not only to me but to an extensive community of Nobel Laureates who follow the invitation by the organisers year after year. The informality facilitates and stimulates very personal encounters and enriching conversations. This special spirit of Lindau, as I would like to call it, captivates everyone who gets the opportunity to experience it. From a technical point of view, I very much appreciate the wide scope of research topics addressed at the Lindau Meetings and the interdisciplinary approach to tackle issues of general importance, such as the concept of sustainability.

Speaking of sustainability, the 63rd Lindau Meeting will deal – among other themes – with “Green Chemistry” and chemical energy conversion and storage. What importance do you attach to these issues?
The fields of research that you mention are indeed crucial. “Green Chemistry” tries to develop processes and substances which minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances. It is thus environmentally friendly. Some people also use the term “Sustainable Chemistry”, which however in my opinion should be used more for the production and usage of substances from biomass. Biomass is derived from photosynthesis during the day that is driven by sunlight. These substances from biomass should be used as valuable building blocks for chemical synthesis, for instance, and not as biofuels. The production of biofuels is an extremely inefficient usage of the available land. I have repeatedly addressed this issue at previous Lindau Meetings. Even if we were to use all the agricultural land in Germany for biofuel production, we would only be able to substitute 10% of the gasoline and diesel currently used in Germany for transport. Exploiting the electricity generated from sunlight by photovoltaic cells is several hundred times more efficient. The big challenge then is how to store this energy. What we do need is electric batteries of a much higher energy storage capacity. We also have to explore whether the electrolysis of water leading to the generation of hydrogen, and employing this hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide from power stations burning coal, natural gas or petroleum to methane or methanol will be a viable alternative. Improving the efficiency of these energy conversion processes will be crucial.

What will you be talking about in your lecture at the 2013 Lindau Meeting?
The current state of research on biochemical structures and processes will be another major topic at the meeting. Thus, I have decided to talk about the “Structure and Mechanism of Otto Warburg’s Respiratory Enzyme – Cytochrome c Oxidase”. Cytochrome c Oxidase is the enzyme that converts the oxygen you breathe into water using electrons provided from cytochrome c. In addition, it pumps protons across biological membranes. These processes provide the energy for the synthesis of the universal biological energy carrier ATP from ADP and inorganic phosphate. Cytochrome c Oxidase thus is a very fundamental enzyme. It was already discovered in 1886, and Otto Warburg received the Nobel Prize “for his discovery of the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme” in 1931. Nevertheless, many scientists are working on it today. We do know a lot more than Otto Warburg did, but we still have to solve many problems.

Your department at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics has over 50 members – both senior and younger professionals from different countries. Is diversity the key to success in contemporary science?
Research is and will increasingly be a collaborative affair. Scientists with different backgrounds and research expertise have to work together, in particular because the methods used are from different scientific disciplines, and the equipment needed to perform competitive research has become more and more expensive. We are proud to share our expertise and equipment with visitors and students from all over the world. Equally important for success is innovative and creative thinking, fresh ideas and top expertise – and we need experienced people just as much as we need ambitious young talents. It goes without saying that collaboration should not be hindered by national or cultural borders. Each year when I am fortunate to attend a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, I am impressed and carried away by the competence, curiosity and energy of the young participants – networking, discussing, asking the right questions. This makes me think confidently about the perspectives of a global scientific community.

Professor Michel, thank you very much for this interview.

More information: www.biophys.mpg.de
Contact: Brigitte Holfelder, Max Planck Institute of Biophysics
Email: brigitte.holfelder@biophys.mpg.de