Highest endowed German research award brings world-class biologist to Mainz University

20 February 2019

He is a world-leading cell biologist and chromosome researcher and recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, the most highly-endowed research award in Germany: Professor Peter Baumann. In 2017, Baumann left the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Kansas City in the USA and moved to Germany to work at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), where he supports the strategic realignment and expansion of the life sciences disciplines.

It is certainly the case that more money is invested in research in the USA than in Germany. "But Germany recognizes just how essential fundamental research is," says Professor Peter Baumann. "We can do basic research here without being immediately asked whether a project has concrete benefits and what its medical applications are."

According to Baumann, this kind of research is vital as it can lead to groundbreaking discoveries. "There are fields of research where it might be justified to ask how long developing a drug will take and how profitable it will be. Nevertheless, application-oriented research of that kind should not result in theoretical research being neglected. For me, one of Germany's great strengths is that it commits itself to long-term investment in research and development of new technologies. In this country, we have the basic outlook that anyone who has proven themselves capable in the past is also likely to produce something worthwhile in the future."

Back on German soil after 25 years

Although apparently just a passing observation, this remark is testimony to Baumann's passionate advocacy for the form he thinks the research landscape in Germany should take. He pauses for a moment. We had agreed our discussion should focus on him. He left Germany 25 years ago – to do research. And now he is back for the very same reason: His positions as Professor of Molecular Biology at JGU and Adjunct Director at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) provide him with ideal conditions for his work.

In 2017, the university succeeded in bringing Baumann to Mainz with the help of an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. This is the highest endowed award for science in Germany, worth EUR 5 million, and it is correspondingly rarely awarded. The approval was an honor for Mainz University. "It is not just about whether the beneficiary is doing outstanding research," states Baumann. "The Humboldt Foundation also assesses the context and considers the prospects for the future: Can the recipient contribute to the academic location developing further than it might do without him or her?"

At JGU, where the life sciences are currently being realigned, IMB provides important stimuli and the Department of Biology is reorganizing itself in the midst of a generational change, all the pieces appeared to be in place. As Baumann confirms: "The broad community of biologists here provides an excellent environment for my research." In addition, the major research topics at IMB, i.e., genome stability and epigenetics, are exactly the fields in which Baumann is active. He continues to briefly describe two of his areas of interest.

"Why is sexual reproduction so widespread? This continues to be one of the greatest mysteries of biology." His team is pursuing this question in a rather idiosyncratic fashion: Their subject is a species of lizard that, surprisingly, consists of females only. All the offspring of the whiptail lizard in question, from the desert of New Mexico, originate from unfertilized egg cells. "Parthenogenetic reproduction, as it is known, is unusual in vertebrates. Nevertheless, if we study the underlying mechanisms, we can also find out how this happens in practice and how switching to same-sex reproduction is possible in the first place."

Whiptail lizards and chromosome ends

Recombination of parental genes in sexual reproduction generates high variability in the offspring. The result is a population that can react better to changing environmental and ecological conditions. "At first glance, you might think there would be much less genetic diversity without males. But the genome of these lizards is peculiarly diverse." These single-sexed species all originated from the mating of two distinct species. Both contributed their genes and a hybrid was born.

"In practice, our domesticated animals are similar: We cross-breed two species, resulting in just such a hybrid. The hybrid's advantage is its improved viability. However, this is lost within one generation when the animals reproduce normally. Not so with the lizards: Their special method of reproduction enables them to maintain their viability." This, apparently, has provided them with such a profound advantage that, in these particular cases, their mode of asexual reproduction has been preserved over thousands of generations.

The media is fascinated by the lizards, as Baumann discovered already back in the USA. "It seems there are always column inches available in a newspaper for articles about females who don't need males. But that's actually not my main area of research."

Baumann's focus for several decades has been on telomeres, the caps at the end of chromosomes. During cell division telomeres tend to shorten. The cells age. This is countered by an enzyme called telomerase. Its function is to repair the chromosome ends and it, therefore, plays a vital role in stabilizing the genome. "However, telomerase can also be found in high concentrations in cancer cells. These need the enzyme to successfully divide. Synthesizing telomerase in cells involves a whole series of stages. It's this process that we are striving to understand. By doing so, we may be able to prevent cancer cells from producing active telomerase."

Building bridges between disciplines

However, there is one major complication: Many of the healthy cells in our body also depend on active telomerase to maintain the stability of their genome as they divide. Telomerase helps prevent them from aging. "Interestingly, there are degenerative diseases caused by a lack of telomerase. The chromosomes of sufferers shorten, and they end up with serious health problems. Our solution to inhibiting cancer cells, but not normal cells, is to limit the duration of the inhibitive effect.  The impact on cancer cells is dramatic while normal cells, in contrast, can tolerate the absence of active telomerase for a much longer period.  That means we have a window of opportunity to destroy cancer cells – without the serious side effects of other therapies, which affect all dividing cells equally."

Baumann intends to further pursue this project, among others, in Mainz, but he also hopes to open up new areas of research by reaching out to his new colleagues. "We are actively looking to establish links with other disciplines, for instance, chemistry, physics, computer science, and medicine. That's the lifeblood of modern research. And, it seems to me, I have found it here at JGU and IMB."

Admittedly, it took a while until Baumann found his feet again in Germany. He and his wife ran a farm in Kansas. "It was just a hobby, but we farmed, we kept animals. What we really wanted was to have a go at ... as they used to say in the US ... sustainable living." He now lives on the northern borders of the Palatinate Forest. "Our four big dogs came over with us from America. I feel like I'm home. Now I have the opportunity to build something up and that's why I am here.  That's what really gets me going."