History of the Institute of Microbiology & Genetics

The Institute of Microbiology & Genetics at the Georg-August-University in Göttingen - a young institute with an ongoing tradition of more than one hundred years.

The Institute of Microbiology & Genetics at the Georg-August-University of Göttingen was founded in 1997 by the fusion of the Institute of Microbiology and the Institute of Molecular Genetics. These two institutes shared common research interests under the same roof (Grisebachstr. 8) for several years, with each of them having their own diploma subjects and separate organizational structures. The fused institute is responsible for the teaching in both microbiology and genetics, and in addition since 2002 for biochemistry and bioinformatics. The fusion was part of the general reconstruction of the Faculty of Biology. Until 1998, Gerhard Gottschalk was the founding director of the institute followed by Hans-Joachim Fritz (1998-2000), Gerhard Braus ( 2000-2004), Ralf Ficner (2004-2008), Burkhard Morgenstern (2008-2012), Rolf Daniel (2012-2016) and Jörg Stülke (since 2016).

The two roots of the institute go back to different periods of the last century. The Institute of Microbiology was founded in 1900 as an Institute of Agricultural Bacteriology. It was the first bacteriology institute at a German university, which was not part of the medical faculty. The Institute of Molecular Genetics was not founded before 1989. Therefore, specific lectures in genetics are only provided since the appointment of Hans-Joachim Fritz.

In the years 2001 to 2003, three new departments were established and three new professors were appointed: in 2001 Ralf Ficner started the Department of Structural Biology, in 2002 Burkhard Morgenstern was appointed for the Department of Bioinformatics and in 2003 Hans-Ulrich Mösch began the Department of Genetics of Eukaryotic Microorganisms.The extension of the Institute resulted in additional teaching activities in the subjects biochemistry (Department of Structural Biology) and bioinformatics (Department of Bioinformatics) in parallel to the ongoing subjects microbiology and genetics.

The Former Institute of Microbiology

The Koch-Rippel-Era (1901-1958)

The Institute of Microbiology at the Georg-August-University was founded in 1900 as an Institute of Agricultural Bacteriology. As in many comparable cases, the goal was not to initiate an innovative center of scientific excellence. Economic expectations enhanced the foundation, which were based on the discovery of nitrogen fixation by free living bacteria. Albert von Caron's goal was to replace artificial fertilizers by the addition of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. He did his experimental work with bacteria on his property in Ellenbach near Kassel, which gave the initial impulse for this new institute. Alfred Koch (1858-1922) became the first director. The building (Goßlerstraße 16) was finished in 1904. A vegetation hall and an experimental field of 4 hectars were situated next to it. Alfred Koch investigated the N-Cycle in the soil including nitrification and denitrification. This scientific quest was continued by August Rippel who headed the institute from 1923 until 1958. Under his directorship, 70 Ph. D. theses were written, which dealt with aspects of general microbiology and soil microbiology. Noteworthy is the discovery of Hermann Bortels, who showed that nitrogen fixation depends on the presence of molybdenum. Alfred Rippel started the tradition of writing books on microbiology: "Lectures on Theoretical Microbiology" and "Basics of Microbiology" were both important to establish the subject "microbiology".

The Schlegel-Gottschalk-Era (1958-1996)

Hans Günter Schlegel became chair of the Institute of Microbiology in 1958. He launched a long period of ongoing expansion of the Institute. With the construction of a new building in the Grisebachstraße 8 in 1970 and the creation of a new chair for microbiology in the same year. In 1973, the Department of Micromorphology was founded under the guidance of Frank Mayer. Until 1979, Norbert Pfennig and Hans-Joachim Knackmuss as members of the society for radiation and environmental research (GSF) were associated with the Institute of Microbiology. In addition, the German collection of microorganisms (director: Dieter Claus) was founded in the institute and prospered in Göttingen until 1987, when it was moved to Braunschweig.

After this period, the scientific staff consisted of 5 university teachers: Jan Remmer Andreesen, Botho Bowien, Gerhard Gottschalk, Frank Mayer and Hans Güter Schlegel together with about 14 scientific co-workers and many diploma and Ph. D. students. The scientific research covered a broad range of subjects. Beginning with the pioneering isolation of the phototrophic bacteria Chromatium okenii and Thiospirillum jenense, acetate oxidizing sulfate reducers (Desulfotomaculum acetoxidans) and novel sulfate reducers like Desulfonema, Xanthobacter autotrophicus, Clostridium purinolyticum and C. formicoaceticum and the first species of the genus Sporomusa. These organisms were characterized on the physiological and biochemical levels. To mention are the enzyme system of poly-ß-hydroxybutyric-acid synthesis in Ralstonia eutropha, the ribulose-bisphosphate-carboxylase and hydrogenases from chemolithotrophic bacteria and the CO-dehydrogenase from carboxydo bacteria. Furthermore, the assimilation of citrate, betain and trimethylamine by anaerobic bacteria was investigated. Another focus was on the function of cytochromes in methanogenic bacteria. All this led to the first genetic studies in the early eighties. For the first time, the genes of poly-ß-hydroxybutyric-acid synthesis were cloned and sequenced. From Ralstonia eutropha a circular megaplasmid was isolated, which encoded essential features of chemolithotrophy. The combined approaches of electron microscopy, biochemistry and genetics led to essential information on enzymes in the cell walls of thermophilic bacteria, which were able to hydrolyse starch and cellulose. Further, the functional domains poly-ß-hydroxybutyric-acid-depolymerase and bacterial resistance against heavy metals were investigated. Later, the regulation of autotrophic CO2-fixation, the aceton-butanol-fermentation, and the Co-oxidation of trichloroethene were at the center of interest. Bioenergetics was in the scientific focus throughout the seventies and eighties. For Escherichia coli, it was shown that the organism was able to grow solely on fumarate and molecular hydrogen (fumarate reductase reaction) under anaerobic conditions. Another interesting discovery was that methane formation from methanol and hydrogen was related to the build-up of a proton-motive-force, leading to the discovery of proton pumps in methanogenic organisms and of Na+ pumps in methanogens and acetogens. 

The Institute of Microbiology in Göttingen influenced widely the teaching of this subject. First to mention is the text-book "General Microbiology" by Hans Günter Schlegel, by which generations of German microbiologists came and still come in contact with this subject. The laboratory courses became also famous and were copied by several other microbiological institutes in Germany. Finally, Gerhard Gottschalk introduced the text-book "Bacterial Metabolism", which was/is used in advanced microbiology classes. 

An impressing number of co-workers received a Ph.D., a habilitation and became university professors at other universities. This illustrates the capacity of the work and the impact of the Institute of Microbiology. In the following an incomplete number of former co-workers are listed: Jan Remmer Andreesen (Halle), Garabet Antranikian (Hamburg-Harburg), Georg Auling (Hannover), Beate Averhoff (München), Hubert Bahl (Rostock), Michael Blaut (Potsdam), Ralf Conrad (Marburg), Uwe Deppenmeier (Milwaukee, USA), Peter Dürre (Ulm), Karl-Heinrich Engesser (Stuttgart), Bärbel Friedrich (Berlin), Cornelius Friedrich (Dortmund), Friedrich Giffhorn (Saarbrücken), Ulrich Hahn (Leipzig), Fuad Hashwa (Amman, Jordanien), Andreas Holzenburg (Reading, UK), Heinrich Kaltwasser (Saarbrücken), Jobst Klemme (Bonn), Hans Knackmuss (Stuttgart), Johannes Krämer (Bonn), Ortwin Meyer (Bayreuth), Peter Molitoris (Regensburg), Volker Müller (München), Dietrich Nies (Halle), Karl-Heinz Robra (Graz), Bernhard Schink (Konstanz), Alexander Steinbüchel (Münster), Wolfgang Streit (Duisburg), Hans-Georg Trüper (Bonn), Friedrich Widdel (Bremen), Jürgen Wiegel (Athens, USA).

The Former Institute of Molecular Genetics

In 1984, a gloss ("Niedersachsenroß und Gentechnologie") was the initial step for the foundation of the Institute of Molecular Genetics. Gerhard Gottschalk uncovered in a local newspaper the structural deficit of the Faculty for Biology, for not having an Institute of Molecular Genetics. The article initiated several activities by the government of Lower Saxony and the president of the university. Only a few years later, the Institute of Molecular Genetics was founded.

Hans-Joachim Fritz accepted the position of a founding director in January 1989. He moved with about a dozen co-workers from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried (München) to Göttingen. Before the group could inhabit their laboratories, they had to be completely renovated. During this period, the group found temporary lab space with Dieter Gallwitz at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. 

From the beginning, Hans-Joachim Fritz had two scientific interests: i) analysis of biochemical defense mechanisms for the genetic information against disturbances by temperature, and ii) directed and evolutionary protein engineering.

Immediately, genetics became a popular subject for students and the institute a favorite place for diploma theses. The group of Hans-Joachim Fritz cooperates intensively with other institutes at the Georg-August-University, and with external institutes like the MPI for Experimental Medicine and the German Center for Primates. 

The Institute of Microbiology & Genetics since 1996

In 1996, Gerhard Braus became the successor of Hans Günter Schlegel. Before that, Gerhard Braus was group leader at the Institute of Microbiology of the ETH Zürich and subsequently became professor for biochemistry in Erlangen. Research topics include primarily the regulation of metabolism and development of yeasts and filamentous fungi. 

In 1997, the fusion of the Institute of Microbiology and the Institute of Molecular Genetics to a combined Institute of Microbiology & Genetics was completed. 

In 1997, Wolfgang Liebl was appointed from the TU München and in 2003 he became full professor and head of the Department of Applied Microbiology. His major research topics are heat-stable enzymes from various hyperthermophilic microorganisms. In 1997, the Göttingen Genomics Laboratory (G2L) was founded by Gerhard Gottschalk and Hans-Joachim Fritz and in 2001 Gerhard Gottschalk became the head of GenoMik-Network, a nationwide federal network which determines the genomes of various microorganisms and has its center at the Institute of Microbiology & Genetics.

In 2003, Jörg Stülke who was before a group leader at the University of Erlangen became the successor of Gerhard Gottschalk at the Department of General Microbiology. His main interest is in the central metabolism and the gene regulaton of various bacteria including Bacillus subtilis and Mycoplasma pneumoniae.

In the years 2001 to 2003, the Institute of Microbiology and Genetics was enlarged by three new departments. The Department of Structrural Biology headed by Ralf Ficner is located adjacent to the central building of the institute (Grisebachstr. 8) in the novel GZMB building (Justus-von-Liebig-Weg 11) and is connected by a bridge. Before 2001, Ralf Ficner was a group leader at the University of Marburg and at the Max-Planck Institute of Biophysical Chemistry and he is interested in the X-ray structure of large protein and RNA-protein complexes. The new Department of Bioinformatics which is headed by Burkhard Morgenstern is located in another building at the North Campus (Goldschmidtstr. 1) in close neighbourhood to the other new Bioinformatics Deparment which has been established in the Medical Faculty. Burkhard Morgenstern had been a group leader at the University of Bielefeld and is interested in different fields including comparative genome analysis and multiple sequence alignments. The Department of Genetics of Eukaryotic Microorganisms which was founded in 2003 is located in the central building (Grisebachstr. 8) and was headed by Hans-Ulrich Mösch until 2004. Since 2006, Stephanie Pöggeler is chair of the Department of Genetics of Eukaryotic Microorganisms. Her major research interests are fruiting-body development in filamentous ascomycetes and fungal inteins.

Heike Krebber was appointed in 2010 as successor of Hans-Joachim Fritz to the Department of Molecular Genetics. She is interested in the identification and characterization of requirements for mRNA processing, transport and translation in eukaryotic cells.
In 2012, Rolf Daniel became the successor of Wolfgang Liebl at the Department of Genomic and Applied Microbiology, as well as the head of the Göttingen Genomics Laboratory (G2L). He is mainly interested in the exploitation of the enormous and largely untapped physiological, metabolic, and genetic diversity of environmental microorganisms by culture-independent metagenomic and metatranscriptomic approaches.