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Biocatalysis – a perfect mission for Bernhard Hauer

Even though human beings are great inventors, nature itself frequently comes up with the best solutions. One good example is enzymes: in contrast to the processes used in the technical-chemical production of basic industrial substances, enzymatic biocatalysis saves energy, raw materials and reduces side and waste products. Prof. Dr. Bernhard Hauer, the new director of the Institute of Technical Biochemistry (ITB) at the University of Stuttgart is an expert in research and application in this field.

The new director of the ITB has an excellent reputation for his knowledge on catalysts. The microbiologist Bernhard Hauer was already working on enzymes when he did his doctorate at the University of Hohenheim where he investigated the role of microbial enzymes in the degradation of the metabolic products of poppy plants in their natural environment. He was not only interested in the function of the enzymes, but also wanted to gain insights into the genetic basis of enzyme activities. "I used biochemical methods to investigate metabolic enzymes, but lacked the necessary genetic background to find more out about how such degradation pathways were encoded by genes and whether the necessary genetic information was found in plasmids, for example," explains Hauer.

In 1982, he therefore decided to spend his postdoctoral period in the laboratory of Prof. James Shapiro at the University of Chicago. Shapiro is a specialist in genetic engineering and mobile genetic elements such as transposons. Shapiro offered Hauer the opportunity to investigate the genetics behind enzymatic metabolisms. When he was in the USA, a friend at the MIT in Boston told Hauer that the BASF was planning to set up a new biotechnology laboratory in Germany. Hauer saw this as his chance to establish his own, application-oriented biocatalysis group. As his wife still lived in Germany, Hauer welcomed the opportunity to return to his native country.

Enzyme research always raises new questions

Working in the BASF laboratory in Ludwigshafen was quite challenging, everything was new and still to be set up – perfect conditions for the new head of laboratory. The more expensive energy and raw materials became, the more the use of enzymes in industrial production was welcomed – and this continues to be the case even now. Whilst enzymes generally catalyse reactions under standard conditions, the effectiveness of competing chemical processes depends on high pressure and high temperatures. “We frequently faced the challenge of coming up with innovative areas of research and over the last few years we have developed many new processes, from the discovery of enzymes in bacteria and yeasts, to process development and implementation,” said Hauer who can look back on a remarkable professional career. In 1988, Hauer became the head of biocatalysis and biotransformation and in 1999 he became scientific director of biotechnology.

Many successes in practical research were transformed into successful products. One of these products resulted from a cooperative project with scientists from the University of Stuttgart. “We developed a method in which we used bacterial enzymes for the saponification of nitriles, i.e. for the production of chloromandelic acid from hydrocyanic acid and chlorobenzaldehyde. Chloromandelic acid is a basic substance used in pharmaceutical production,” said Hauer. The method was developed in a BMBF-funded joint project involving BASF scientists and geneticists, microbiologists and biochemists from the University of Stuttgart.

Keeping one foot in academic research

On top of his work in industry, Hauer still had the energy and dedication to pursue an academic career. Through his teaching at the University of Heidelberg, he found that evolution was an important aspect in the investigation of enzymes. He habilitated in this topic in 1996 in Heidelberg. “I was interested in the evolution of enzymes and in particular in the development of new enzyme functions,” said Hauer. The active researcher also lectured at the ETH Zurich, and spent some time as guest researcher at the Californian Caltech and the University of New South Wales in Australia. “Through these activities I always had one foot in the academic world,” said Hauer highlighting the positive side of his many and varied commitments.

© ITB, Uni Stuttgart

His employer, the BASF, not only tolerated Hauer's academic activities but actively encouraged them, something that did not come naturally for the company back then. "Many doors are opened in this way and many opportunities present themselves. It is important to approach your employer to find out what they think about you taking on academic activities, and it is equally important to check at regular intervals whether they are still in agreement with this situation," recalls Hauer who has found that his strategy has been borne out by the fact that the BASF has also gained a great deal from his academic "excursions". "Nowadays, it is standard practice for company employees to work in academic research as well; senior research level employees are able to regularly gain experience by working in the academic world."

His scientific curiosity has also landed him a number of awards. In 1997, he received the BASF Innovation Prize for the development of commercial biotechnological production methods and in 2003, the Dechema Award from the Max Buchner Research Foundation. Eventually, his affinity with academic issues brought him back to university. "I wanted to bring practical application issues back to university. Another important reason for going back to university was the wish to focus once again on basic questions and pursue my own ideas. In addition, I have always enjoyed working with highly motivated young people," said Hauer.

New horizons

In line with the current trend at the University of Stuttgart to establish a material sciences research priority, Hauer plans to develop biocatalytic methods in order to create new substances and materials. “I can well imagine that in future we will use entire enzyme chains and potentially also create new enzymes in order to efficiently produce basic chemicals such as alcohols and biopolymers."

In terms of student education, Hauer finds it extremely important to communicate expert knowledge as well as effective ways of approaching different issues. “My aim is to show students how projects develop and the knowledge that is required to implement processes. In addition, I put great emphasis on openness and the importance of approaching others, in terms of language and communication as well, in order to be able to work with international representatives from other disciplines,” highlights Hauer.

Hauer’s polyfaceted nature also influences his private life. He has two children and is a passionate art lover and collector. “I am very much a visual person and biology is all about looking at things, and the eye plays an important role,” said Hauer. He also requires good vision for his second hobby, which is sailing. “I have already been on several sailing trips with my research colleagues and I hope to be able to encourage a group here in Stuttgart to join me on one of my future sailing trips,” said the institute director.

Further information:

University of Stuttgart
ITB - Institute of Technical Biochemistry
Prof. Dr. Bernhard Hauer
Allmandring 31
70569 Stuttgart
Tel.: +49 (0)711 685-63193
E-mail: bernhard.hauer(at)itb.uni-stuttgart.de

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/biocatalysis-a-perfect-mission-for-bernhard-hauer