Hartmut Michel: 1988 - Chemistry

Hartmut Michel
Hartmut Michel

Year & Category

1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (jointly with Johann Deisenhofer and Robert Huber)

Prize motivation

"For the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre"

At the time of the award he worked at

Max-Planck-Institut für Biophysik, Frankfurt-on-the-Main, Federal Republic of Germany

About his research

Hartmut Michel received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his significant contribution towards an understanding of photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is perhaps the most important of all chemical reactions. The fact that it uses light to produce not only food for plants but also oxygen is fundamental for life on Earth. For a long time scientists wondered how light was collected and passed on inside plant cells. Then Hartmut Michel, Johann Deisenhofer and Robert Huber achieved a decisive breakthrough in understanding the light reaction in photosynthesis.

Thinking out of the box
Hartmut Michel observed three-dimensional crystals in the membrane protein bacteriorhodopsin for the first time while he was a research assistant at the University of Würzburg. Opposing the prevailing scientific opinion, the young researcher believed it was possible to crystallise such membrane proteins. His success in 1981 proved Michel right: he was the first to succeed in crystallising a membrane complex, the photosynthetic reaction system, and thereby make it accessible to X-ray structure analysis. Together with Johann Deisenhofer and Robert Huber he subsequently carried out a detailed structural analysis of this membrane protein complex.

Expertise and excellent equipment
Michel’s pioneering work has especially benefited medicine, since membrane proteins in body cells control vital processes such as breathing and the absorption of food and drugs. Hartmut Michel is still involved in research on membrane proteins as director of the Department of Molecular Membrane Biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt am Main. Michel’s expertise and the excellent technical equipment of his department make the institute an especially attractive centre for international students and experts.