Multidisciplinary talent, people who can combine biological knowledge in an outstanding way with engineering, is in great demand. Ralf Takors, who has been head of the Institute of Bioprocess Engineering (IBVT) at the University of Stuttgart since July 2009, is one such talent.
Modern biotechnology breaks down disciplinary borders and brings together know-how from the natural and engineering sciences. This requires scientists that not only look beyond their own discipline, but who also transgress it. Ralf Takors (born in 1966) is a mechanical engineer by training. However, after finishing his studies, which focused particularly on process engineering, he turned to biology, moving to the Institute for Biotechnology at the Research Centre in Jülich in 1993 where he obtained his PhD in 1997 in the field of bioprocess engineering.
"At that time, biotechnology was something very new to me, and I was very attracted by the unknown. In addition, I found it exhilarating to have a freer hand in my work, as biotechnology focuses on living systems and so there is more room for manoeuvre," recalls Takors. "Of course, I had to learn the ropes in biology. Being an engineer, I had to learn many new things, for example with regard to metabolic mechanisms," said the researcher. During his research at the Research Centre in Jülich, Takors worked on the development and use of an experimental experiment planning technique for microbial processes. This, and his doctoral thesis, eventually led him to the field of bioprocess engineering, i.e. the technical development of bioprocesses. He continued working in this area and habilitated in 2004 at the Research Centre in Jülich and the RWTH in Aachen.
The renowned biotechnologist Prof. Dr. Christian Wandrey, a pioneer in the still young field of research, was Takors’ mentor. “Wandrey gave his researchers the freedom they needed and was a positive example for many. In addition, he was very concerned that the technologies being developed found their way into industrial application,” said Takors. This spirit also led to Takors’ habilitation thesis topic focusing on “Metabolic and bioprocess engineering – a fruitful symbiosis”. Takors wanted to combine the two technologies to create a fruitful symbiosis. According to Takors, bioprocess engineering is actually the much older technology, which was then supplemented by metabolic engineering. The new interface science led to quantitative ideas on which genetic alterations were required to enable microbial production strains to achieve greater yields, and hence optimise production processes.At that time, Takors developed a fundamental research approach that he still applies today. “I believe that the key to everything is the triad of method development, method optimisation and application. In practice as well, I find it very important to see all the individual steps as parts of this triad,” explains Takors. This way of thinking also helped him when he decided to work in industry after finishing his doctorate. He was drawn to a job at Evonik Degussa GmbH (formerly Degussa AG). “Engineers working in research are well advised to see what the real world is about,” said Takors with a smile. But the most likely reason for him choosing to work in industry was his intention to work on applications, and the Research Centre in Jülich did not really offer him the environment he needed. “When you work in research, you frequently find that sooner or later industry is no longer willing to disclose further information in order to protect their products and technologies. But I was determined to get insights into how industry works.”
Up until summer 2009 he made the most of his opportunity to obtain in-depth insights into industry. Takors was in charge of Evonik Degussa GmbH's "Feed Additives" division, a business area embracing almost all of Evonik's biotechnological activities. As head of division, Takors was in charge of the entire range of bioprocess development and optimisation. He worked closely with molecular biologists that were focusing on the development of bacterial strains. At the same time, Takors also established contacts with partners working in the area of systems biology. One of these contacts was Prof. Dr.-Ing. Matthias Reuss, his predecessor at the University of Stuttgart and who still heads up the Centre of Systems Biology. "Although we did not work in direct cooperation with one another, one of my researchers did his doctoral thesis at the IBVT," said Takors. Takors believes that systems biology is an important source of new findings: "Nowadays, one needs to have a thorough understanding of the cell as a whole in order to be able to develop optimal production systems. Systems biology provides us with the quantitative description of the cell as a whole system."
The second pillar on which Takors' research will be based in future is synthetic biology, which in turn is closely related to systems biology. "We use synthetic biology not only for the production of completely new, artificial cells or organisms, but also for integrating new metabolic pathways, which provide us with access to completely new products," said Takors who regards his favourite subject, metabolic engineering, as a subset of synthetic biology.
Takors sees his move from industry back to academic research as a logical development of his endeavours. “I came to a point where I had to make up my mind. In industry, you will eventually end up in management, but I really like to concentrate over the long term on research topics,” said Takors. That is why the new position at Stuttgart University was so attractive for him: “The Stuttgart Centre of Bioprocess Engineering is only one of very few institutions of this kind, and it has a unique spatial and personnel structure. It offers huge potential for further development, and I would very much like to drive this forward.”Takors’ vision of his future research activities lies in the ability to combine white and red biotechnology. If Takors and his team’s systems biology and synthetic biology projects provide them with satisfactory simulations of bioprocesses involving microorganisms, he has further plans to expand the systems, for example by looking at the cells of higher organisms with the aim of developing animal cell lines for pharmaceutical production. “We have already started to test CHO cells, i.e. ovarian hamster cells, for their potential. However, our initial work will focus on developing suitable tools and on improving existing microbial strains,” highlighted Takors.
Takors’ academic development work benefits greatly from his excellent contacts within industry. Besides working in collaboration with his previous employer, Takors has also established contacts with many other companies active in the field of bioprocess engineering. These contacts are also of great benefit for his team of young researchers, who have the opportunity to obtain insights into industry, either through practical training, study or examination theses.Takors has outstanding didactic skills, proven during his habilitation. He received the “Hochschullehrer-Nachwuchs-Preis 2001” from Dechema, an award honouring outstanding pedagogical quality in the presentation of scientific work. Takors will also bring his teaching commitment to the master’s course on “systems biology”. He is involved in planning this course, but is unable to disclose further information as yet. “We are still in the preparatory phase,” said the professor enigmatically.