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Symbolbild Photosynthese mit Baum und Sonne

Bild: / NataliaBarashkova

For a long time, the most important chemical reaction on Earth, photosynthesis, was one of the greatest mysteries of biology. How can plants grow with just light, air and water? The puzzle was eventually solved in 1985 by a team led by chemist Robert Huber from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) – an achievement that won him the Nobel Prize a few years later.

Plants, bacteria, and energy from the sun

Photosynthesis using sunlight is the basis for all higher life forms on Earth. The question is, how do plants and countless other organisms obtain energy from the sun? The chemist Robert Huber did not look to green leaves for the answer – but rather to purple bacteria. These microorganisms, which live in warm salt ponds, were the focus of Huber’s research group in the early 1980s. Both Hartmut Michel and Johann Deisenhofer took a lead role in this research.

Just like photosynthesis in green plants and algae, purple bacteria also use sunlight to build organic substances. The decision to focus on these microorganisms helped the three researchers explain the reaction, a breakthrough that was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1988.

Huber specialized in demonstrating the structure of complex proteins using X-ray crystallography. Hartmut Michel had earlier managed to crystallize the protein that plays a key role in the photosynthesis of purple bacteria. The three scientists exposed the structure of the macromolecule atom by atom by examining it with X-ray crystallography. This allowed them to gradually gain an understanding of its inner workings.

In 1985, they succeeded in determining the structure of the reaction center in photosynthesis. Their explanation of “the most important chemical reaction in the biosphere of our Earth” was later recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee. The structure of the central molecule of photosynthesis, chlorophyll, had actually been uncovered around 60 years previously by another chemist from TUM called Hans Fischer, who received the Nobel Prize in 1930.

“All our nourishment has its origin in this process, which is called photosynthesis and which is a condition for all life on earth.”

Nobel prize medal

Nobel Committee for Chemistry, 1988, at the concession of the Nobel prize to Robert Huber, Hartmut Michel and Johann Deisenhofer

Picture: © ® The Nobel Foundation: Photo: Lovis Engblom

Curious? More discoveries and inventions spanning 150 years of TUM

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