Press releases


Aug 3 2022

A research team with members from Goethe University Frankfurt and the University of Michigan in the USA is using bacterial biosynthesis to produce an antibiotic containing fluorine –The technology is being commercialized by a startup

A New Biosynthesis Method Has Been Developed to Produce Antibiotics from Natural Substances

The use of the element fluorine to modify active substances is an important tool in modern drug development. A team at Goethe University Frankfurt has now achieved an important “first" by successfully fluorinating a natural antibiotic via targeted bioengineering. With this method, an entire substance class of medically relevant natural products can be modified. The method has enormous potential for the manufacture of new antibiotics against resistant bacterial pathogens and for the (further) development of other drugs. The startup kez.biosolutions GmbH will bring these research results to the application stage (Nature Chemistry, DOI 10.1038/s41557-022-00996-z).

FRANKFURT/MAIN. Active drug agents have been chemically modified with fluorine for decades, owing to its numerous therapeutic effects: Fluorine can strengthen the bonding of the active agent to the target molecule, make it more accessible to the body, and altering the time it spends in the body. Nearly half of the small-molecule drugs (molecules up to approx. 100 atoms) currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain at least one chemically bound fluorine atom. These include such different drugs as cholesterol-lowering agents, antidepressants, anticancer agents and antibiotics.

Bacteria and fungi often manufacture complex natural compounds to obtain a growth advantage. One possible route for the development of drugs from natural compounds is to modify these substances by adding one or more fluorine atoms. In the case of the antibiotic erythromycin, for example, the attached fluorine atom confers important advantages. The new erythromycin manufactured via this process can be accessed more easily by the body and is more effective against pathogenic microorganisms that have developed resistance to this antibiotic. However, the synthetic-chemical methods for inserting fluorine into natural substances are very complicated. Owing to the chemical and reaction conditions that are necessary, these methods are frequently "brutal," says Martin Grininger, Professor for Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Goethe University. "This means, for example, that we are very limited in selecting the positions where the fluorine atom can be attached," he adds.

A German-U.S. scientific team headed by Prof. Martin Grininger and Prof. David Sherman, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Michigan, has now succeeded in utilizing the biosynthesis of an antibiotic-producing bacteria. In this process, the fluorine atom is incorporated as part of a small substrate during the biological synthesis of a macrolide antibiotic. “We introduce the fluorinated unit during the natural manufacturing process, an approach that is both effective and elegant," stresses Grininger, "This gives us great flexibility when positioning the fluorine in the natural substance – and allows us to influence its efficacy."

To this end the project leaders Dr. Alexander Rittner and Dr. Mirko Joppe – both members of Grininger's research group in Frankfurt – inserted a subunit of an enzyme called fatty acid synthase into the bacterial protein. The enzyme is naturally involved in the biosynthesis of fats and fatty acids in mice. The fatty acid synthase is not very selective in processing the precursors, which are also important for the manufacture of antibiotics in bacteria, Rittner explains. With an intelligent product design, the team succeeded in integrating a subunit of the murine enzyme into the corresponding biosynthetic process for the antibiotic. "The exciting part is that, with erythromycin, we were able to fluorinate a representative of a gigantic substance class, the so-called polyketides," says Rittner. “There are about 10,000 known polyketides, many of which are used as natural medicines –for example, as antibiotics, immunosuppressives or cancer drugs. Our new method thus possesses a huge potential for the chemical optimization of this group of natural substances – in the antibiotics primarily to overcome antibiotic resistance." To exploit this potential, Dr. Alexander Rittner founded the startup kez.biosolutions GmbH.

Prof. Martin Grininger has been conducting research on the tailor-made biosynthesis of polyketides for several years. "Our success in fluorinating macrolide antibiotics is a breakthrough we worked hard to achieve and of which I am now very proud" he says. “This success is also an impetus for the future. We are already testing the antibiotic effect of various fluorinated erythromycin compounds and additional fluorinated polyketides. We intend to expand this new technology to include additional fluorine motifs in collaboration with Prof. David Sherman and his team at the University of Michigan in the U.S."

The search for drugs that overcome antibiotic resistance is a long-term task: depending on how frequently they are used, all antibiotics naturally cause resistances sooner or later. Against this background Dr. Mirko Joppe also believes that his work has broader implications for society. "Research on antibiotics is not economically lucrative for various reasons. It is therefore the task of the universities to close this gap by developing new antibiotics in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies," he explains. "Our technology can be used to generate new antibiotics simply and quickly and now offers ideal contact points for projects with industrial partners."

The research work on polyketides described above was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation (within the framework of a Lichtenberg Professorship), the LOEWE MegaSyn research initiative funded by the Hessian Ministry for Science and the Arts, and the National Institute of Health in the U.S.

Publication: Alexander Rittner, Mirko Joppe, Jennifer J. Schmidt, Lara Maria Mayer, Simon Reiners, Elia Heid, Dietmar Herzberg, David H. Sherman, Martin Grininger: Chemoenzymatic synthesis of fluorinated polyketides. Nature Chemistry (2022) 

Image to download:

Caption: Scientists working at Goethe University Frankfurt have created an enzyme capable of producing fluorinated antibiotics via a series of reactions. For clarity, the different regions of the hybrid that interact in this context are shown in different colors. (Graphic: Grininger)

Additional Information:
Prof. Dr. Martin Grininger
Institute for Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences
Goethe University Frankfurt
Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Tel.: +49 (0)69 798-42705

Editor: Dr. Markus Bernards/Dr. Anke Sauter, Science Editor, PR & Communication Office, Tel. +49 69 798-13066, Fax + 49 69 798-763-12531,


Jul 28 2022

Goethe University Frankfurt, the Institute of Ethnology, and the Frobenius Institute congratulate “their” social and cultural anthropologist

Prof. Mamadou Diawara Now a Fellow of the British Academy

In recognition of his accomplishments in the humanities and the social sciences, Mamadou Diawara has been elected a Fellow of the British Academy. Diawara is Professor for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Institute of Ethnology and Deputy Director of the Frobenius Institute at Goethe University. He is also Director of Point Sud, the Center for Research on Local Knowledge in Bamako, Mali.

FRANKFURT/MAIN. Professor Mamadou Diawara has been elected a "Corresponding Fellow" of the British Academy at their Annual Meeting and is thus now a member of the Academy, where he will be responsible for the disciplinary section "Africa, Asia and the Middle East." Election to the "Corresponding Fellowship" is the highest scientific honor awarded by the Academy in the humanities and social sciences. According to the Academy statutes, only a person who has "achieved great international prestige" in one of the research areas to be promoted by the Academy may be elected. A permanent place of residence outside the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands is an additional criterion for appointment.

"The news caught me totally by surprise and made me very happy, of course," said Professor Diawara, adding that it was a great honor to be admitted to a circle containing so many luminaires. "The British Academy is an important authority which repeatedly voices its opinion in public debates, and its point of view carries great weight. He stated that he is personally looking forward to interesting lectures and a regular academic exchange with scholars in the humanities and social sciences from all over the world. He is now entitled to use the title "FBA" after his name for his entire life.

Mamadou Diawara, born in 1954, studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Bamako and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. Diawara completed his doctorate in anthropology and history in Paris in 1985. This was followed, in 1998, by his habilitation at the University of Bayreuth in Germany and in 2004 by the call to Goethe University Frankfurt. Diawara has taught at universities in Europe and the Americas. He was a Henry Hart Rice Visiting Professor in Anthropology and History at Yale University in the USA and a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg [Institute for Advanced Study] in Berlin. In 1998 Diawara founded Point Sud, the Center for Research on Local Knowledge in Bamako, Mali, together with Moussa Sissoko and other colleagues from Germany, Austria and Mali. Moreover, he was co-initiator of several research promotion projects aimed at the upcoming generation of scholars in Africa and played an active role in programs fostering cooperation between scientists in Africa and other parts of the world.

Mamadou Diawara's research deals with history, oral cultures, media, changing standards, mobility and migration in Africa. His regional focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the Sahel countries, and relations between Africa and Southeast Asia, in particular Thailand, where he conducts research on trade, including trade in precious and semiprecious stones. He has received major support for this work from the Cluster of Excellence "The Formation of Normative Orders.”

The British Academy was founded in 1902 and is the national academy for the humanities and social sciences of the United Kingdom. It is a community of more than 1,400 leading minds in these areas. The Academy views itself as an institution devoted to promoting research on the national and international level and as a forum for discussion and engagement. This year a total of 85 Fellows were elected including 52 from the United Kingdom, 29 Corresponding Fellows and four Honorary Fellows. 

In her welcoming speech, Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy, said: "I am delighted to welcome these distinguished and pioneering scholars to our Fellowship. (…) With our new Fellows’ expertise and insights, the Academy is better placed than ever to open new seams of knowledge and understanding and to enhance the wellbeing and prosperity of societies around the world. I congratulate each of our new Fellows on their achievement and look forward to working with them.” 

Portrait of Prof. Diawara for downloading:

Photo caption: The ethnologist Prof. Mamadou Diawara has been elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. (Photo: Normative Orders, Frankfurt/Main)

Further information
Institute of Ethnology
Administrative Office
Tel: +49 (0)69 798-33064

PD Dr. Susanne Fehlings, Press and Public Relations, Frobenius Institute
Tel: +49 (0)69 798-33058

Editor: Dr. Anke Sauter, Science Editor, PR & Communication Office, Tel. +49 69 798-13066, Fax + 49 69 798-763-12531,


Jul 22 2022

Laboratory study: Lower level of protection as early as 3 months after a second vaccination or booster shot – monoclonal antibodies in part ineffective. However, results do not indicate how severely people fall ill

Neutralisation efficacy of antibodies against Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.2 declines quickly

The Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.2 of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which dominated from about December to April, can already circumvent after three months the protection against infection offered by vaccinations and recovery from infection. This has been revealed in a study in Frankfurt lead-managed by University Hospital Frankfurt and Goethe University. Moreover, according to the study, various pharmaceutical antibody preparations (monoclonal antibodies) have widely differing effects on the two virus variants. The study authors emphasise how important it is to align protective measures to the genetic changes in the virus, therefore. 

FRANKFURT. The Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was first detected in South Africa in November 2021. The high level of infectiousness of the virus and its ability to quickly spawn additional variants has also been observed in Germany: Since January 2022 the Omicron variant BA.1 has dominated here, followed in subsequent months by the variant BA.2. In the meantime, the virus has mutated further, and since June the variants BA.4 and BA.5 have superseded their predecessors. 

This poses major challenges for the immune system of the human body: antibodies are formed in the course of a SARS-CoV-2 infection and these attach themselves to the surface structures of the virus, thus preventing it from penetrating human cells. The viral spike protein plays the key role here. In the Omicron variants, this has changed in more than 50 sites compared to the first SARS-CoV-2 virus identified in Wuhan. The consequence: the antibodies formed after an infection or a vaccination do not recognise the variants less efficient. This is why despite having overcome an infection, people can again become infected with a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, or there are breakthrough infections. However, how good the immunity response is to an infection depends on more than just antibodies. 

Researchers in Frankfurt headed by Marek Widera and Professor Sandra Ciesek from the Institute for Medical Virology at the University Hospital of the Goethe University Frankfurt have now examined how long the antibodies present in blood after a vaccination or recovery from an infection were still able to neutralise the virus variants Omicron BA.1 and BA.2. To this end, they collected blood samples from people who had been vaccinated twice or three times (booster shot), placed the liquid blood component (blood serum), which contains antibodies, together with SARS-CoV-2 viruses on cultivated cells and observed how many of the cells became infected. Furthermore, in each case they ascertained the quantity of antibodies in the samples that recognised the spike protein. 

The result: six months after the second vaccination, the tested sera practically had no neutralising effect on the Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.2. The effect of a booster vaccination declined rapidly: although the sera still provided very good protection shortly after the booster vaccination, three months later the protective effect was merely very weak, with the effect that the tested sera were no longer capable of neutralising the two virus variants. “This is due to the fact that the antibody titre in serum – the amount of antibodies, so to speak – after a vaccination or infection declines in the course of time," explains Widera. “Because the antibodies have a significantly lower ability to recognise newer virus variants, a lower level of antibodies is then no longer sufficient to neutralise the virus variants and prevent an infection of the cells in a cell culture. However, the data from this study does not allow any conclusions to be drawn regarding protection against the seriousness of the course of the disease." The decisive factor for the immune function is not just the antibody titre, but also the cellular immune response, which was not examined in this study, Widera adds. 

These results are particularly problematic for the use of monoclonal antibodies, which are administered to patients with a compromised immune system as a precautionary measure, for example, says Professor Sandra Ciesek. Ciesek is the Director of the Institute for Medical Virology at the University Hospital Frankfurt and the senior author of the study. She explains: “As an example we studied three such monoclonal antibodies in laboratory experiments and saw that their efficacy is very heavily dependent on the virus variant. So that we are able to protect vulnerable patients with such preparations, it is absolutely essential to also test in patients the extent to which such antibodies can neutralise the virus variants that are currently prevalent, therefore." Admittedly, the virus variants BA.1 and BA.2 examined in the study are no longer dominant in Germany in the meantime, adds the virologist. “Our study shows, however, that we cannot afford to let up in adapting our protective measures in line with the genetic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, at present to the Omicron variants BA.4 und BA.5, therefore." 

Publication: Alexander Wilhelm, Marek Widera, Katharina Grikscheit, Tuna Toptan, Barbara Schenk, Christiane Pallas, Melinda Metzler, Niko Kohmer, Sebastian Hoehl, Rolf Marschalek, Eva Herrmann, Fabian A. Helfritz, Timo Wolf, Udo Goetsch, Sandra Ciesek: Limited Neutralisation of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Subvariants BA.1 and BA.2 by Convalescent and Vaccine Serum and monoclonal antibodies. eBioMedicine (2022) 

Further information: 
Professor Sandra Ciesek
Marek Widera, Ph.D.
Institute for Medical Virology
University Clinic Frankfurt via Press Office University Clinic Frankfurt
Tel. +49 (0)69 6301 – 86442

Editor: Dr Markus Bernards, Science Editor, PR & Communication Office, Tel: -49 (0) 69 798-12498, Fax: +49 (0) 69 798-763 12531,


Jul 22 2022

Researchers from Goethe University Frankfurt, together with teams from the universities of Marburg and Basel, have shed light on the atomic structure of a bacterial protein that stores hydrogen and carbon dioxide 

Research on bacteria: Electron highway for hydrogen and carbon dioxide storage discovered

Microbiologists at Goethe University Frankfurt, together with researchers from Marburg and Basel, have shed light on the structure of an enzyme that produces formic acid from molecular hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The enzyme of the bacterium Thermoanaerobacter kivui was discovered a few years previously by microbiologists at Goethe University Frankfurt, and the scientists have recently presented its potential for liquid hydrogen storage. The filamentous structure of the enzyme, now described at atomic level for the first time, acts like a nanowire and is evidently responsible for the extremely efficient conversion rates of the two gases (Nature, DOI 10.1038/s41586-022-04971-z).

FRANKFURT/MARBURG/BASEL. In 2013, a team of microbiologists led by Professor Volker Müller from Goethe University Frankfurt discovered an unusual enzyme in a heat-loving (thermophilic) bacterium: the hydrogen-dependent CO2 reductase HDCR. It produces formic acid (formate) from gaseous hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2), and in the process the hydrogen transfers electrons to the carbon dioxide. That makes this HDCR the first known enzyme which can directly utilise hydrogen. In contrast, all enzymes known until then that produce formic acid take a detour: they obtain the electrons from soluble cellular electron transfer agents, which for their part receive the electrons from the hydrogen with the help of other enzymes. 

The bacterium Thermoanaerobacter kivui thrives far away from oxygen, for example in the deep sea, and uses CO2 and hydrogen to produce cellular energy. The HDCR of Thermoanaerobacter kivui consists of four protein modules: one that splits hydrogen, one that produces formic acid and two small modules that contain iron sulphur. “It was already clear to us after our discovery that it had to be the two small subunits that transfer the electrons from one module to the other," says Müller. In 2016, the researchers observed that the enzyme forms long filaments. Müller: “We could see how important this structure was from the fact that filament formation massively stimulates enzyme activity." 

The researchers from Goethe University Frankfurt, together with the group led by Dr. Jan Schuller, University of Marburg and LOEWE Centre for Synthetic Microbiology, have now produced a molecular close-up of the enzyme. Through cryo-electron microscopy analysis, Schuller's group has succeeded in determining the HDCR structure at atomic resolution. This made details of the long filaments visible, which the enzyme forms under experimental conditions in the laboratory (in vitro): the filaments' backbone is composed of the two small HDCR subunits, which are arranged together to form a kind of nanowire with thousands of electron-conducting iron atoms. “This is the only enzymatically decorated nanowire discovered so far. On this wire, the hydrogenase module and the formate dehydrogenase module sit like mushroom heads on a cable," explains Schuller. 

Helge Dietrich, a doctoral researcher in Volker Müller's group at Goethe University Frankfurt, tested a genetic modification of the small modules that prevented the HDCR filaments from forming. The result: the individual components or monomers were far less active than the filament. 

Enzyme monomers arrange themselves into filamentous structures inside bacterial cells too. Professor Ben Engel, a structural cell biologist at the University of Basel, and his team contributed this finding by performing cryo-electron tomography. Using this cutting-edge technique, the researchers discovered something special: “Hundreds of filaments bundle together to form ring-shaped superstructures. These structures are really striking—we informally call them 'portals'," explains Engel. The bundles are evidently anchored in the inner membrane of the bacterial cell and span almost its entire width. Dr. Ricardo Righetto, senior scientist in Ben Engel's team, analyzed the structure of HDCR filaments within the native bacteria: “Cryo-electron tomography allows us to directly look inside cells at very high resolution. Using this approach, we were really surprised to not only confirm the occurrence of HDCR filaments in the cells but to find they form large bundles attached to membrane". 

This structure reveals why the HDCR enzyme is orders of magnitude more efficient than all chemical catalysts and far better than all known enzymes at producing formic acid as a “liquid organic hydrogen carrier" from hydrogen and CO2 (cf. background information). Volker Müller: “The hydrogen concentrations in the ecosystem of these bacteria are low, and, in addition, the CO2 and H2 concentrations can switch. Formation of filaments and bundling not only substantially increase the concentration of these enzymes in the cell. The thousands of electron-conducting iron atoms in this 'nanowire' can also store the electrons from hydrogen oxidation intermediately when even just one hydrogen bubble passes by the bacteria." 

The team is convinced that not all the enigmas surrounding the HDCR enzyme have yet been solved through the atomic resolution of the structure. Jan Schuller says: “We don't yet know how the wire stores the electrons, why filament formation stimulates enzymatic activity so intensively or how the bundles are anchored in the membrane. We're working on these research questions." But the HDCR's future could be very exciting, believes Volker Müller: “Perhaps one day we'll be able to produce synthetic nanowires which we can use to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. We're also a step closer now to biological hydrogen storage." 

Background information 

Publication: Helge M. Dietrich, Ricardo D. Righetto, Anuj Kumar, Wojciech Wietrzynski, Raphael Trischler, Sandra K. Schuller, Jonathan Wagner, Fabian M. Schwarz, Benjamin D. Engel, Volker Müller & Jan M. Schuller.

Membrane-anchored HDCR nanowires drive hydrogen-powered CO2 fixation. Nature (2022) 

Picture download: 

Caption: The filaments of the bacterial enzyme HDCR, which produces formic acid from gaseous H2 and CO2, are wound around each other like a plait. Credit: Verena Resch -- 

Further information:
Professor Volker Müller
Department of Molecular Microbiology & Bioenergetics
Institute for Molecular Biosciences
Goethe University Frankfurt
Tel.: +49 (0)69 798-29507

Dr Jan Michael Schuller
KryoEM Molecular Machines
SYNMIKRO Research Center
University of Marburg
Tel.: +49-6421 28 22584 

Professor Ben Engel
University of Basel
Tel.: +41 61 207 65 55

Editor: Dr Markus Bernards, Science Editor, PR & Communication Office, Tel: -49 (0) 69 798-12498, Fax: +49 (0) 69 798-763 12531,


Jul 11 2022

Prof. Dr. Luciano Rezzolla elected as Fellow of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation

International Gravitational society honours physicist Luciano Rezzolla from Goethe University

FRANKFURT. Every three years, the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation hand-picks a few extraordinary scientists as Fellows, among them such famous personalities as Stephen Hawking and Nobel-laureate Roger Penrose. From now on, Luciano Rezzolla, professor for Relativistic Astrophysics at Goethe University Frankfurt, is among them. He has been honoured “for leading contributions to the development of robust numerical relativity simulations of astrophysical phenomena", that is, the very same calculations that are necessary to predict the gravitational-wave signal from merging neutron stars or to produce the image of the Black Hole Sagittarius A* at the centre of our Milky Way.

Rezzolla is the first professor of a German university receiving this special honour. “I was clearly overjoyed to think that my contributions to gravitational physics have been so influential to be enlisted in this very selected group of fellows." he says “I am very passionate about my research, so it is very gratifying when my peers acknowledge the hard work." The ceremony took place on 8 July in Beijing. Unfortunately, Rezzolla was not able to attend personally: “It is a pity. But the fellowship is a big motivation to face all the difficulties that research and academic life inevitably bring."

For the years to come, Rezzolla is focusing on the formation of heavy elements during the merger of neutron stars. As spokesperson of the research cluster ELEMENTS, a collaboration of Goethe University, TU Darmstadt, GSI, and JLU Gießen, he and a variety of physicists from different fields are searching for the origin of heavy elements such as gold and platinum in the universe.

Picture download:

Caption: Luciano Rezzolla, professor for Relativistic Astrophysics at Goethe University Frankfurt (Credit: Uwe Dettmar)

Further information:
Dr. Phyllis Mania
Science Communication Officer
Research cluster ELEMENTS
Department of Physics
Tel 0049 69 798-13001

Editor: Dr. Phyllis Mania, Science Communication Officer, PR & Communication Office, Tel: -49 (0) 69 798-13001, Fax: +49 (0) 69 798-763 12531,