Ernst Jung Gold Medal for Medicine 2015: Professor Walter Neupert

For his pioneering contributions towards resolving the biogenesis of mitochondria, the Jung Foundation for Science and Research distinguished Prof. Dr med. Dr rer. nat. Dr. h. c. mult. Walter Neupert by awarding him the Ernst Jung Medal for Medicine in Gold.

Prof. Neupert has also been honoured with numerous prize awards from other quarters, and his expertise has rewarded him with membership of key national and international scientific bodies. From 1995 to 1997 he was President of the Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and from 1997 to 2000 Chairman of the European Molecular Biology Council. As a mentor for coming generations of researchers, he passed on his knowledge as a university professor in Göttingen and Munich, most recently – until the year 2010 – as Professor for Physiological Chemistry at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Since 2008 he has been in charge at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry for the research group “Structure and Functions of Mitochondria”, carrying out research on the molecular bases of the complex mitochondrial architecture and its dynamics.

Great researchers have great ideals to emulate. For Prof. Neupert, it is George Emil Palade, the founder of modern molecular cell biology and Nobel laureate of 1974. Prof. Neupert draws his internal drive for his research work simply from his “scientific curiosity” and his self-imposed task of “making a contribution towards basic medical research”.

Research on the power stations of our cells

What lungs are to us are mitochondria for our cells. Mitochondria enable cells to breathe, a process in which the nutritional substances ingested by us are converted into usable energy. This energy is of vital importance to our body; for instance it is needed for all metabolic processes, for muscular functions and for maintaining body temperature. Functionally disturbed mitochondria can trigger neurological or muscular afflictions and may also cause sugar diabetes, obesity and various forms of tumours. It is all the more important to understand what exactly makes mitochondria “tick”: How do they arise, how do they multiply, what are they comprised of, and what could impair their functionalities? The renowned cell biologist Prof. Neupert has placed these questions at the centre of his meanwhile 45-year research career – and he still does so today at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried (Munich).

Mitochondria cannot be formed from scratch but multiply by division. In the 1970s, Prof. Neupert carried out pioneering work by discovering the mechanism that is responsible for the division and, therefore, for the multiplication of mitochondria that is so vital for the human body. Based on this knowledge, in the past 35 years Prof. Neupert has made a series of additional discoveries that have contributed to a decisive degree to today’s understanding of the membrane transport of proteins taking place in mitochondria. The insights gained in the process supply key impetus for the development of therapies, e.g. for hereditary diseases in which the genome of the mitochondria shows defects.