Wittgenstein Prize – Microbiologist Schleper honored with Wittgenstein Prize

Microbiologist Christa Schleper is this year’s Wittgenstein Prize winner. She is a pioneer in the research of archaea and is one of Austria’s most cited scientists worldwide. At the University of Vienna, she and her team are researching the very smallest and very oldest creatures on earth, which play a major role in the ecosystem. The “Wiener Zeitung” met her for an interview.

“Vienna Newspaper”: How did you come across your field of research?

In addition to the Wittgenstein Prize, the FWF also annually awards the START Excellence Funding. This program is aimed at aspiring top researchers. The START prize is endowed with 1.2 million euros each and goes to six young scientists.

William Barton: The specialist in Greek and Latin, william barton, uses artificial intelligence to decode the diary of the Hellenist Karl Benedikt Hase, which was believed to be lost and was written in ancient Greek. Barton works at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies in Innsbruck.

Elfriede Dall: If the protein legume is detected outside of its original location in the human cell, those affected are almost certainly suffering from cancer or Alzheimer’s. The microbiologist Elfriede Dall from the University of Salzburg investigates the functions of the protein and its unfamiliar environment.

Sandra Müller: The mathematician Sandra Mueller analyzes various forms of infinity resulting from set theory at the Technical University of Vienna.

Marcus Ossiander: Ultrashort pulses can be generated with light from the extreme ultraviolet spectrum, which allows precise measurements on atomic time scales. But there are no suitable lenses for this light spectrum. the physicist Marcus Ossiander wants to remedy the situation by using new nano-optics, which are used in virtual reality glasses, for example. He will implement his research project at Graz University of Technology.

Stefan Pflugl: The biotechnologist Stefan Pflugl researches at the Vienna University of Technology how fossil raw materials in the chemical industry can be replaced by sustainable alternatives. He draws on bacterial metabolic processes from the early days of the earth’s history.

Petra Sumasgutner: Humans interfere with nature in many ways. The behavioral scientist Petra Sumasgutner In the Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology at the Konrad Lorenz Research Center in Grünau im Almtal, he uses global data sets on short-eared owls and common ravens to investigate how human disturbances influence their search for food and what the consequences are.

Christa Schleper: As a biology student, I ended up doing an internship at the Max Planck Institute in Munich with a pioneer in archaea research. At that time, this area was still almost esoteric. Archaea were mainly found in extreme locations such as hot springs. Their ecological importance was still unknown. We were doing field research in Iceland and the atmosphere was incredibly exciting. That was the first kick.

What is particularly fascinating about archaea?

That they can survive at all in such extreme locations that are reminiscent of an early Earth. They are also fascinating from an evolutionary point of view. Archaea have developed molecular machines for the transmission of information in the cell, as we have in plants and animals today. Without the Archaea we would not be as we are. They are a kind of precursor for essential processes in our cells. The more we learn about them, the more we understand our own development.

What significance do they have for nature and humans?

There is the evolutionary and the ecological aspect. We have only known about the latter for around 20 years. I was one of the pioneers who used metagenomics to look for archaea in the environment. They are everywhere on earth – in the ground, in the sea. They are important because of their numbers alone, but also because they convert nitrogen compounds – including those we use to fertilize the fields. As a result, only 30 percent of the nitrogen ends up in the plants, the rest is flushed into the environment. Therefore, in agriculture, one wants to prevent these microbes from multiplying or being active. If we understand how they work, we can better regulate them. We may then be able to use less fertilizer, which pollutes the environment.

Archaea also produce methane gas – one of the greenhouse gases. What is there to consider?

These methanogenic archaea are just as problematic as the nitrogen-metabolizing microbes that produce nitrous oxide – also a greenhouse gas. As the permafrost thaws, there is concern that much more methane will be released. But exactly the same organisms are also exciting for biotechnological processes because they produce CO2 and can convert to methane. If you produce it in a controlled manner, it is an energy source similar to natural gas. This is also being researched.

Which research project does the prize money go to?

We want to study the processes in the soil and the nitrogen conversion in more detail. This is also a bit of pioneering work with my team. We are also pioneers in archaea cultivation. With Nitrososphaera viennensis we have officially described the first organism. He comes from the 9th district of Vienna – hence the name. It is our model organism. And now we’re ready to do biochemistry, and I’m excited to dig deeper into this.

Primitive bacteria are often spoken of instead of archaea. Are they comparable to bacteria?

Their discoverer (US microbiologist Carl Woese) first called them archaebacteria, and later archaea. Since they were initially only found in extreme locations and they were reminiscent of early Earth, he thought they must be original. They are among the first living creatures on earth and arose at the same time as bacteria, but followed a different evolutionary path. Therefore the term primordial bacteria is not correct.

When it comes to bacteria, there are those that cause illness and those that promote health. Does this also apply to archaea?

So far, no pathogenic species has been found. But there are associations – for example with methanogenic archaea in the intestine. They are more common with certain diseases. But it’s more of a correlation. No archaeon has yet been found that causes a disease. The archaea associated with animals are also symbionts rather than pathogens. Whereby we mainly work on the methane formers and the ammonia oxidizers, which are widespread on earth.

In which areas could one take a closer look?

Another strong focus is running as a large EU project with an ERC grant. Here we go more into evolution. We have cultivated a new group of archaea that is in fact the currently known closest sister group to plants and animals. Our closest relatives, if you will. They have a lot of genes that were thought to have evolved only in the more complex life forms. They hold a goldmine of new genes that we are dying to understand to see how complex life forms arose. The bacteria and archaea evolved and split about four billion years ago. After two billion years, they met again and from that came plants and animals. We are now very close to this original line. These archaea also look exciting – they form very long arms and completely new cell shapes. They are complex and very interwoven. In their genetic material one can also see that they must have a cytoskeleton. (Note. A cytoskeleton is responsible for the mechanical stabilization of the cell and its external shape, for movements and for transport within the cell.) It was thought that such a system only developed in higher living beings. The field of research is still young.

Archaea can obviously do a lot.

Yes, and that is a very big mystery. A very personal research question of mine is why it is that they can do so much, but that most of them have stayed in hot springs and only a few have spread so successfully on the planet. The methane producers and the ammonia oxidizers. We are also researching archaea from hot springs. These can do completely different things. They can grow very well, but have not spread any further.

How did you react to the news that you were an award winner?

I was surprised and touched. And I was also very happy for the young people in my laboratory. I should have submitted many research applications so that they could continue researching. I’m thankful for that.

Does that mean the prize money goes into the existing research group?

Yes. And that’s a great team. Ultimately, you benefit from the price. He also gives security. After two years of the pandemic, we can go out again and do field research. This is a positive wave that we can really use.

Leave a Comment