“I do not want to settle for the fact that the research is finished with the publication: I want an impact.”

published by Karen Esser
Peter Seeberger , Max-Planck-Institut für Kolloid- und Grenzflächenforschung Wissenschaftspark Potsdam-Golm

His research has been published in over 550 articles and his work has been awarded more than 35 prizes. Without doubt, Prof. Dr. Peter H. Seeberger is one of the most distinguished chemists in Germany. An interview with the man who has headed the “Biomolecular Systems” department at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces since 2009.

Prof. Seeberger, you became known worldwide for your work on “vaccines from sugar.” How did you, as a chemist, get the idea to study this area?

I had studied chemistry in Nuremberg and went to the USA to study biochemistry. There I was able to do my doctorate and took the opportunity. My boss was the man who invented automated DNA synthesis. So he had covered the field of DNA, someone else the proteins – what was left was sugar or carbohydrates, as we call them. And because eighty percent of biomass is surrounded by sugar, I figured I do sugar.

You say sugar is the best way to fight bacteria and germs. What is it that drives you?

I learned in the USA that if we as chemists do good basic research, we can help biology and medicine and improve people’s health. So one thing led to another. What many people do not know is that we ourselves are surrounded by sugar. Almost all our cells are surrounded by a sugar coat. This also applies to bacteria: They too have sugar chains on their surface. And if we understand how these sugars are structured and function, the industry can produce vaccines based on them. We may do basic research, but we don’t close our eyes to possible applications. I don’t want to settle for the fact that the research is finished with the publication: I want an impact.

During your lectures you also like to have stuffed toys like the Streptococcus Pneumoniae (bacterium pneumococcus) or Clostridioides difficile (hospital germ) with you to introduce bacteria or germs to the audience. How important is it to you to communicate science in a vivid way?

It is an aspect that is extremely important to me. I also learned this in the USA. The communication of science is more important there than here in Germany. And as a Max Planck Institute we are dependent on the taxpayer. That’s why I see it as my duty to communicate to people what happens with this tax money. If people have the impression that basic research is worthwhile, that it is something important, then I have done my job well. So I try to package it in such a way that the listeners understand what I am talking about and don’t switch off after three minutes. And the streptococcus is really a nasty thing that kills more than two million people a year.

In your opinion, what are currently the most important research projects at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces?

About 400 people work at our institute, so we are very broadly based. We do research in many areas, from molecules to materials. I find the field of bio-inspired materials exciting. In other words, my colleague Peter Fratzl and his department learn from nature, for example from plants or spiders, and imitate them. This then extends to applications in which we are working on a revolution in materials chemistry. My colleague Markus Antonietti, for example, is researching how to dissolve plant materials with very hot water and ultimately produce fertilizers or high-quality materials from them. Materials that are harder than steel. And from a starting material like cellulose. These are our topics and much more.

You have studied in Nuremberg, have been to the University of Colorado Boulder, in New York, Professor at MIT and Professor at ETH Zurich. What do you think is special about the research environment in Potsdam-Golm?

The proximity to the capital region is of course a huge plus. This is how we find a good pool of employees. 75 percent of our employees come from abroad. The Potsdam Science Park in Potsdam-Golm has the right offer for everyone, a mixture of rural and urban. We have six universities nearby, the University of Potsdam and four universities in Berlin. Then there are 75 non-university institutions here in the capital region, so there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation. There is a lot of space for setting up companies, from which I myself also benefit. I had also seen at MIT how much spin-offs help to build a campus and how research highlights the environment. The Potsdam Science Park is simply a good location.

How satisfied are you with your job as director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces?

I have the best job in the world. Really: The Max Planck Institute as an employer is fantastic. We can set up the institutes the way we want them to be. We have therefore organized everything very efficiently and kept it very lean. That’s why I can still do my own research and lead two working groups. I also write my own articles. During the day I am on campus and from 20:30 to 23:00 I write something. That is also important to me. I want to do research. That is my strength, my passion.

In 2007 you were awarded the prestigious Körber Prize for European Science, and in 2008 a documentary was made about you by ZDF. In 2018 you received the Ernst Hellmut Vits-award, in 2020 the Emil Fischer Medal for Organic Chemistry: What do you want to achieve in the future?

I am driven by the new. I want to explore new things. If in the next ten years we can still do basic research for something that will lead to a vaccine, then I’m happy. The next big challenge is materials made of polysaccharides, long-chain sugars. These are materials from the deep sea, mostly algae. Very little is known about these materials. When we understand this, we will understand how extremely large amounts of CO2 can be fixed. This will be a major topic for the future. My dream is that we can cover all or a great deal with renewable raw materials. I imagine that at some point, based on renewable resources, there will be materials that we can use as materials: Cellulose that is harder than steel. Then we could use the raw material wood to produce materials that are so strong and robust that they could replace steel in construction. I would like to see a green economy that can be driven forward by chemists. There is an incredible amount of added value that we can use to do a lot against climate change. These are my plans for the next 15 years. I am already looking forward to them.

Prof. Dr. Seeberger, thank you for the interview!

Photo: Prof. Seeberger © Martin Jehnichen

This blog is funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Brandenburg.