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Biophysicist in Profile

Jörg Enderlein

Jörg Enderlein

March 2022 // 2299

 Jörg Enderlein, professor of physics at Georg August Universi­ty in Göttingen, Germany grew up in East Berlin. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father worked as a lawyer. “My parents were not professionally involved in any scientific activity,” he shares, “however, both were highly edu­cated and supported my scientific interest in any way possible by giving me books and popular science magazines, and by enabling me to attend a special high school with enhanced natural sciences curricula.”

Enderlein became interested in natural sciences at an early age. His parents gave him a popular physics book when he was 13 years old, and he knew then that he wanted to be­come a physicist. He attended the Heinrich-Hertz secondary school, a top East German school with special emphasis on natural sciences. “From there, I went to Odessa in the former Soviet Union (today Ukraine) and started studying physics at Ilya Mechnikov University there, from 1981 to 1986,” he recounts. “After that, I returned to Germany and obtained my PhD in physical chemistry from Humboldt University in Berlin.”

After completing his PhD, he worked for three years in Berlin as a research scientist with PicoQuant, a then-newly-founded company specializing in pulsed laser systems and high-speed electronics for scientific research. “My transition to biophys­ics began when I learned about the spectacular work by the late Richard Keller about the detection and spectroscopy of single fluorescent molecules, which triggered a technological revolution in biophysics. This work was a huge methodologi­cal breakthrough and started the whole field of single-mole­cule biophysics. When I learned about his work around 1990, I was instantly fascinated and completely switched my field of research,” Enderlein recalls. “At that time, the spectacular results by the Keller group initiated a huge German-wide research initiative that tried to catch up with these achieve­ments and to develop single-molecule biophysics. PicoQuant was part of this research initiative with the expressed goal to develop the cutting-edge technology (pulsed picosecond sol­id-state lasers, high-speed electronics for time-resolved sin­gle-photon counting, ultrasensitive detectors) for single-mol­ecule biophysics, and I joined them as a research scientist responsible for the scientific aspects of their activities.”

Following his time with PicoQuant, he joined Keller’s lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as a postdoc­toral fellow. “During my postdoc,” he explains, “I developed extensive models and programs for single-molecule fluo­rescence spectroscopy, in particular for fluorescence lifetime spectroscopy, and applied these models and programs to the single molecule analysis of DNA.”

In 1997, Enderlein joined Regensburg University in Regens­burg, Germany as an assistant professor. Then in 2001, he became a group leader at Forschungszentrum Jülich, the big­gest research lab in Germany. “My career has been far from linear. After my PhD, I held in total seven positions in different institutions, and before becoming a group leader at the For­schungszentrum Jülich, there was never a full guarantee that I could continue forever my academic career,” he shares. “This situation of longtime uncertainty has become even worse for the younger generation of research scientists in Germa­ny. Dwindling base funding has more and more eliminated permanent staff scientist positions in German universities, which makes an academic career extremely insecure, be­cause before getting an appointment to a full professorship in Germany (typically around the age of 45), there is absolutely no guarantee that one can stay in science. I could survive this long period of career insecurity only with my infinite enthusi­asm for doing physics.”

Following his time at Forschungszentrum Jülich, he was appointed full professor of biophysical chemistry at Eber­hard Karls University in Tübingen, Germany before moving in 2008 to his current position as full professor in the physics department of Georg August University. “In 2010, my team developed a new spectroscopic-microscopic technique, Met­al-Induced Energy Transfer Spectroscopy and Imaging, which exploits plasmonics for achieving exceptional spatial reso­lution in optical imaging,” he explains. “Since January 2021, my research is funded by an Advanced Researcher European Research Grant (AdR ERC) with the goal to develop this tech­nique further and to apply it to diverse fields of biophysics: for example, super-resolution imaging of cells and subcellular organelles, structural biology of proteins and protein com­plexes, lipid membrane biophysics, and many more.” In addi­tion to his research work, Enderlein serves as the founding Editor-in-Chief for the Biophysical Society’s gold open access journal, Biophysical Reports, which launched in early 2021.

“As a young man, my dream was to become an astrophysicist, and I still have deep interest in developments in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, but I discovered that the ‘bio­physical universe’ is no less fascinating, surprising, and cap­tivating,” he says. “Biophysics is at the fascinating interface between physics and biology, the first being the lead science of the 20th century, whereas the latter is the lead science of the 21st century. The idea to apply the incredibly successful methods and concepts of physics to the incredibly complex and deep questions of biology is extremely fascinating.”

“We see an incredible development of new experimental methods, such as cryo-EM, single-molecule fluorescence, super-resolution optical microscopy, advanced NMR, smart labels for live cell functional imaging, etc., that yield an in­credible wealth of information about the functioning of cells with molecular resolution. Together with dramatic advances in modeling (one spectacular example is the recent successes of alpha-fold in predicting protein structure), I hope that in the years to come we will be able to reproduce living systems (bacteria, cells, organs) in silico, helping us to understand their complex functioning with huge practical implications for drug design, medicine, but also environmental preserva­tion,” he continues. “One particularly big challenge where I expect dramatic advances in the not-too-distant future is our understanding of the working of the brain and consciousness. Here again, advances in neuroimaging have seen tremen­dous methodological progress, which allows us meanwhile to watch neuronal activity with single-neuron resolution in brain organoids or small mouse brains.”

When he is not working, Enderlein reads many popular sci­ence books, to feed his interest in natural sciences outside of biophysics. “On the other side, literature, art, and classical music have always been an absolutely indispensable part of my life,” he shares. “I am also politically active in supporting many LGBTQ and human rights activities.”

For those just starting out in their careers, he advises: “Al­ways stay curious and be open for new directions and ideas, always question yourself and your research results (or, as Richard Feynman wrote, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool’), and despite all our desire to be successful, always stay an honest person who never gets eaten up by ambition and ego.”

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