Peter Hegemann wins the 2012 Zülch Award

Saturday, 08 September 2012

The Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation recognises the founding father of optogenetics and highlights the importance of this new research area for fundamental research in neurology. Today, researchers can provide nerve cells with genes for light-sensitive protein channels in order to carry out targeted examinations of the cells and also to control them. The Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation has chosen to honour four scientists who have made substantial contributions to furthering the still-new research area of optogenetics with the 2012 K. J. Zülch Award. Biophysicist Peter Hegemann, based at the Humboldt University in Berlin, is one of them.

Award ceremony

Award ceremony

Peter Hegemann at HU Berlin

The other recipients of the Award are Ernst Bamberg of the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt, Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University, USA, and Georg Nagel of the University of Würzburg. With this accolade, the Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation underscores the major importance of the research field of optogenetics, which has been of particular significance to the field of neuroscience. Researchers can use optogenetic methods to gain significant insights into neurological illnesses.  

The prize-giving ceremony for the 2011 K. J. Zülch Award was held on 7 September in Cologne.

It is sometimes specifically the most unremarkable organisms that are responsible for scientific progress. The single-celled freshwater alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and the saltwater archaeon Natronomonas pharaonis are prime examples of this. They have photoreceptor proteins known as rhodopsins for orientation and energy production. Scientists have been using these light-sensitive proteins for some years now to investigate the workings of cells. Rhodopsins are used to infiltrate nerve cells using genetic engineering and can then be activated and deactivated using light, for example. This enables scientists to study the functions of single cells or cell types and the coupling of these cells.

In 2002, Peter Hegemann, who was working at the University of Regensburg with the two Max Planck scientists Georg Nagel and Ernst Bamberg, successfully provided a conclusive demonstration of the extraordinary action of algae rhodopsins:  by transferring the rhodopsin genes to proteins from the clawed frog and also from human kidney cell lines, the scientists were able to show that the algae proteins bring together photoreceptors and an ion channel in a single protein. When exposed to light at a specific wavelength, the protein channel becomes permeable to positive potassium and sodium ions and protons, thus making the cell potential positive (depolarisation). This makes the algae rhodopsins different from most other light-sensitive proteins such as the rhodopsins in the human eye, which do not have their own ion channel.

Following this discovery, the scientists began using these proteins, which they called channelrhodopsins, as tools for investigating cells. Equipped with the gene for the channelrhodopsin-2 protein, a wide variety of cell types can be provided with a light switch, enabling scientists to analyse the effects of changes to the ion composition or the pH value.

Optogenetics is also suited to the study of neurological conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease or depression. Genetically modified animals with disease patterns that are similar to human illnesses and that have been provided with channelrhodopsin genes are important tools in this research. An example of the aim of such studies might be the controlled switching on and off of nerve cells as required in the brain of patients with epilepsy or Parkinson's disease using fibre optics, with the aim of suppressing the specific symptoms of the conditions.

Optogenetics could also be put to other medical uses in the future: as long ago as 2006 and 2008, researchers enabled blind mice to see again. To do this they introduced channelrhodopsin into the nerve cells of the retina of mice which, due to a genetic defect, could not produce photoreceptor cells. After this treatment, the animals could at least differentiate between light and dark. It is possible that genetic therapy using channelrhodopsins could also help people with a disease of the retina known as macular degeneration to recover at least some of their sight.

Photo 1: Zülch Award ceremony: Dr. Karl Deisseroth, Prof. Dr. Ernst Bamberg, Prof. Dr. Georg Nagel, Prof. Dr. Peter Hegemann together with Colognes 2nd mayoress Elfi Scho-Antwerpes (Sept. 07, 2012).
Photo 2: Zülch Award ceremony: Vice-President of Max Planck Society Prof. Dr. Herbert Jäckle, Ms. Zülch (jr.),  Prof. Dr. Ernst Bamberg, Prof. Dr. Peter Hegemann, Prof. Dr. Georg Nagel, Dr. Karl Deisseroth and Elfi Scho-Antwerpes (Sept. 07, 2012). 
Photo 3: Peter Hegemann at his office at HU Berlin. (© HU Berlin / Bernd Prusowski). 

The K-J. Zülch Prize of the Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation has been awarded for outstanding achievements in basic neurological research every year since 1990. The prize is endowed with 50,000 Euro.

Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation

Gertrud Reemtsma established the "Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation" in 1989 in memory of her deceased brother, the neurologist Prof. Dr. Klaus Joachim Zülch, former Director of the Cologne Department of General Neurology at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt. In setting up the Foundation, Gertrud Reemtsma intended to keep the memory of her brother's scientific work alive and to recognize and promote exceptional achievements in basic research in neurology.

The Max Planck Society administers the "Gertrud Reemtsma Foundation" as a trust. The foundation's goal is to promote and recognize exceptional scientific achievements in basic neurological research.