2013 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Peter Hegemann

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Peter Hegemann

The 2013 LOUIS-JEANTET PRIZE FOR MEDICINE is awarded jointly to the German biochemists Peter Hegemann and Georg Nagel, and to the geneticist, Michael Stratton. Hegemann is a researcher at UniCat (Research Fields D4 and E4) and at the Department of Experimental Biophysics at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Georg Nagel is a researcher at the Institute Julius-von-Sachs at the Biocenter, University of Würzburg. Michael Stratton is director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge (UK).

The LOUIS-JEANTET FOUNDATION awards the sum of CHF 700,000 for each of the two 2013 prizes, of which CHF 625'000 is designated for the continuation of the prize-winner's work and CHF 75,000 for their personal use.

THE PRIZE WINNERS are conducting fundamental biological research which is expected to be of considerable significance for medicine.

PETER HEGEMANN and GEORG NAGEL are jointly awarded the 2013 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine for their discovery of ion channels that can be activated by light. They have thus created a new and most promising discipline in the field of neurosciences - “optogenetics”.

Peter Hegemann showed that photosensitive proteins controlled the movements of the microscopic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which only moves in function of its exposure to light. Georg Nagel showed that rhodopsins from microbes, including the ones from the alga, coud be brought into animal cells where they function well and their working can be studied. Together they studied the functionality of these proteins in depth. Thereby they discovered the unique property of ion channels that may be activated by exposure to light and are usable for the study of neural circuits in vitro and in vivo with hitherto unmatched levels of precision. The two researchers thus initiated a new discipline – optogenetics - that in particular offers an entirely new perspective for the treatment of certain neurological diseases.

Peter Hegemann and Georg Nagel will use the prize money to continue their research into proteins that may be activated by exposure to light.

THE AWARD CEREMONY will be held in Geneva (Switzerland) on Thursday, April 18th, 2013.

Peter Hegemann

Peter Hegemann was born in 1954 in Munster. He studied chemistry in his home town and then in Munich, where he was awarded his PhD in biochemistry. He then left for the USA and post-doctoral work at the University of Syracuse (State of New York). On his return to Germany in 1986, he became a research group leader at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry, after which he was named Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Regensburg. Since 2004, he has held the position of Professor of Experimental Biophysics at the Humboldt University, Berlin. Peter Hegemann is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina.

Peter Hegemann and Georg Nagel have already shared several distinctions, notably the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, USA (2010), the Karl-Heinz-Beckurts Prize (2010), and the Klaus-Joachim-Zülch Prize (2012) in Germany.

From green alga to neurosciences

It all started back in the 1980’s, when Peter Hegemann tried to understand how a microscopic green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, moves towards or away from a light source. After about 10 years of research, he suggested that a closely linked protein complex consisting of rhodopsin and a calcium channel depolarises the alga’s membrane, which is sensed by the flagella that then modify the movement according to light intensity and colour. Peter Hegemann identified the rhodopsin genes in a Japanese cDNA bank and sent the cDNA to Georg Nagel. Georg Nagel succeeded in expressing the rhodopsin proteins in animal cells and in characterizing in detail their function. He confirmed and extended Peter Hegemann’s hypothesis by demonstrating that the rhodopsins – which he called Channelrhodpsins - function as light-driven ion channels.  

As the two biochemists had suggested, this mechanism does not only function in algae. The Channelrhodopsins can be expressed, for example, in nerve cells (neurons) of numerous animal species, ranging from worms to primates, to make them light-sensitive allowing for the study of the function of selected neurons in the context of their network.

The two German scientists thus ushered in a new discipline – optogenetics – chosen by the Journal Nature Methods as the “Method of the Year” for 2010. It has indeed emerged that light can stimulate neurons in more complex species, opening the way for numerous medical applications. The hope is that light may be used to give rudimentary vision to blind people, to stimulate the deep brain of patients suffering from Parkinson’s, or even to influence cardiac rhythm for the treatment of heart failure.


Every year, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine distinguishes leading-edge researchers who are active in the European Council member countries.

Established in 1986, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for medicine has thus far been awarded to 78 researchers: 25 in the United Kingdom, 14 in Germany, 14 in Switzerland, 12 in France, three in the Netherlands, three in Sweden, two in Belgium, two in Finland, two in Norway and one in Austria. Their geographical distribution by country does not reflect the nationalities of the prize winners - who come from all over the world; rather it reflects the spread of the European centres of excellence in biomedical research.

The key research fields encouraged by the Louis-Jeantet Prize for medicine are: physiology, biophysics, structural biology, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, developmental biology and genetics.

As one of the best-endowed awards in Europe, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for medicine fosters scientific excellence. It is not intended as the consecration for work that has already been completed, but rather seeks to encourage the continuation of innovative research projects with high added value and of some immediate practical significance in the treatment of diseases.

Since 1986, a total of approximately CHF 53m has been awarded by the Foundation to 78 prizewinners for the continuation of their work.


The aim of the Louis-Jeantet Foundation is to move medicine forward, and to defend the role and identity of European biomedical research vs. international competition. It is the posthumous work of Louis Jeantet, a French businessman and a citizen of Geneva by adoption. Established in Geneva (Switzerland), the Foundation commenced activities in 1983.

The Louis-Jeantet Foundation devotes some CHF 4.5m each year to promoting biomedical research. It invests this sum in equal proportions for European and for local research projects. On the local level, the Foundation encourages the teaching and the development of research at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva, as well as promoting the synergy of competences between this faculty and that of the graduate schools and university hospitals of the Lake Geneva region.

A more detailed summary of the prize-winners' work is available on request at morard(at)jeantet.ch.

For any further information you may require, please do not hesitate to contact:

Prof Jürg A. Schifferli
Secretary of the Scientific Committee of the Louis-Jeantet Foundation

Phone :     +41 61 265 42 93 (direct)
Phone :    +41 61 265 42 92 (P.A.)
Email   :    j.schifferli(at)unibas.ch
Website:   www.jeantet.ch

Prof. Dr. Peter Hegemann

Phone :     +49 30 2093 8681
Email  :     hegemann(at)rz.hu-berlin.de

This news is adapted from the press release of the Louis-Jeantet Foundation on January 22, 2013.