Prof. Lothar Willmitzer has been the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam-Golm since 1993. He studied chemistry at the technological university TU Braunschweig. Later on he was a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne and Professor of Molecular Biology at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Being a researcher at a Max Planck institute means doing basic research. You are interested in how certain molecules regulate genes in plants and bacteria. This area belongs to the relatively new field of systems biology. What does that mean?
Systems biology attempts to depict the biological system, which means that it ultimately, of course, would depict life through the use of molecular parameters. This is the long-term goal. We are still far away from this distant goal, but we are trying to go into that direction. Systems biology is a combination of analytical chemistry, biology and mathematics.
...is it important with regard to plant growth or diseases?
It is certainly also important for our understanding of plant growth and plant diseases, but, as you rightly said, researchers at a Max Planck institute have the great privilege of being allowed to satisfy their curiosity, and in this respect the Max Planck Society and its scientific activities are first and foremost devoted to curiosity alone. There is, of course, a certain underlying assumption, namely the assumption that truly new discoveries are only made if they are not directed. Because if we already knew where the crucial new discoveries were, we could easily direct ourselves towards them, but the history of science shows us that such an approach usually fails.
As a basic researcher, do you conduct research without any real benefit?
No, that's not what it is. If I may give a personal answer to this question, then I would say that I have always found it important – this is true to this day – to have at least an idea or a vision of how to actually use or implement the obtained results in a practical way.
What is it you are currently researching?
In the framework of a project, which we are currently carrying out in my research group, we are trying to better understand plant growth at the level of small molecules. You know that plants contain vitamins, amino acids and sugars. There are also many other substances; thousands of minuscule substances. The way these substances interact and how this ultimately causes the plants to grow is what interests us most.
And do you already know how you could use this in everyday life? For example, could you breed plants that would cope better with special conditions created by climate change?
That is correct. One of the research groups at our institute is trying to find out how plants can survive with less water or still grow well even at higher temperatures. In this respect, our research is future-oriented and it clearly also bears practical applications in mind. At present there are of course many additional application possibilities. We are, for example, trying to better understand and then predict what plants are particularly suited for plant breeding. To this end, we use various analytical processes, which we have developed ourselves, and also mathematical modelling procedures.
Your research creates the basis for the personalised medicine of the future. Who do you work or cooperate with?
We really do have some projects that we carry out in cooperation with medical professionals; they come from the local German Institute for Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbrücke and also from Berlin’s university hospital Charité. The aim is to find out whether certain procedures, certain analytical procedures, which we have developed here, can also be used in the field of medical research in conjunction with modelling procedures. And indeed, the corresponding research or projects look very promising. Here, the unifying elements are the technology, the technology platform and the field of data analysis.
What is the potential of this research, especially at the international level?
Now I can speak on behalf of the entire Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, and in all immodesty, I can say that this institute is being regarded – also internationally – as something almost completely unique. It is one of very few institutes in the world focusing on metabolic processes, i.e. the research on processes involving small molecules in higher plants. In addition, we have very powerful analytical in-house technologies and the fields of bioinformatics and mathematics, which are also very solid, are located at the very same institute. This is something very hard to come across in the world.
And what makes you stay here in Potsdam?
Well, there are a lot of things that are keeping me here. Of course, it is primarily the scientific environment. On the one hand, in Potsdam we have Golm with its two Fraunhofer institutes, two Max Planck institutes and, most importantly, the larger part of the University of Potsdam, namely the Faculty of Natural Sciences. On the other hand, of course, Berlin also has a strong science sector and it is not far away. That's why I think it is an excellent environment, in which we can attempt to do good research.
Woody Allen said: If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative. This applies equally to the field of science and to the business world. What has been your experience? How are the framework conditions here?
The framework conditions are, of course, generally good. Why are they good? They are good, because we have a cluster. This is a centre for many scientific activities and cooperation in the fields of chemistry, physics, mathematics, informatics and biology, which all converge in the area between Potsdam-Golm and Potsdam-Griebnitzsee. Another advantage is that the location is not huge. If the dimensions of a location reach a critical level, the creation of smaller groups is a common occurrence. In Potsdam we are, in a sense, too small to form groups, i.e. we have to pull in the same direction and I think we have been pretty successful in doing so. In other words, the cooperation with the various universities and the various institutes is very, very good. Of course, there is no place where all is well. What we would still like to see, I believe, is a greater awareness in Brandenburg with regard to the importance and necessity of science, technology and training for the future of the state. There surely is awareness, but – to some extent – there is still room for raising this awareness even further.
As a scientific ambassador what do you have to say to the world about Potsdam-Golm?
I believe that Potsdam-Golm is an excellent location in the fields of life sciences and chemistry, in the fields of physics and analytics. I think it's unique in terms of its concentration of Fraunhofer and Max Planck institutes and universities; I think it's a very attractive location. The high number of our international staff members confirms it.