Nobel Laureate Robert Huber

“I have entered the interior of the molecules”

At TUM, Robert Huber has found his life’s passion: Crystallography. For his research he received the Nobel Prize. Among other things, it is of central value for the development of vitally important pharmaceuticals.

When he was still at school, Professor Dr. Robert Huber conducted his first chemical experiments in his parents’ attic. At that time, he had no idea that his scientific curiosity would one day be rewarded with the world’s most prestigious science prize. In 1988 he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry together with his former doctoral student TUM Alumni Professor Dr. Johann Deisenhofer (Doctorate in Physics 1974) and with Hartmut Michel. “Without my mentor, TUM Professor Walter Hoppe, this would not have been possible,” says Robert Huber gratefully. “At TUM I have literally absorbed science.”

Finding His Calling

While Robert Huber’s fascination with Chemistry had still been more general at school, he found his specific research interest at university: Crystallography, which would become his lifelong passion. “Professor Walter Hoppe’s enthusiasm for this branch of Chemistry and his joy in the adventure of research,” recalls Robert Huber. “From then on I knew I wanted to explain life with Chemistry and Physics.”

At TUM, I caught the bug for the joy in the adventure of research.

In his diploma and doctoral thesis, and subsequently as a post-doctoral fellow at TUM and the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Robert Huber dedicatedly and enthusiastically conducted research. With the help of Crystallography he aimed at making the structure of molecules and proteins visible and thus providing the basic prerequisite for understanding them. On this quest, he was inspired and supported by his professors at TUM, all of whom were big names in the scientific world; Professor Dr. Walter Otto Hieber, Professor Dr. Friedrich Weygand, and Professor Dr. Ernst Otto Fischer, himself a Nobel laureate in Chemistry. “I have entered the interior of the molecules,” says Robert Huber about his ambitious research. “We can only understand life if we see its building blocks. Without seeing, there is no understanding.”

Visualising the Building Blocks of Life

As early as the late 1960s, Robert Huber was able to analyse insect proteins using atomic resolution and thus provide a molecular insight into the process of evolution. At the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry he set up a crystallography laboratory focussing on proteins. Shortly afterwards, in 1972, he followed in his his mentor Walter Hoppe`s footsteps and became director of the institute. In 1976, TUM appointed him professor at the Department of Chemistry. Over the years, Robert Huber and his research group have been able to shed light on the structure of numerous proteins and protein complexes using crystallography and X-ray crystallography, not least with methods and instruments they developed themselves.

In 1985 he published the fascinating joint research results together with his former doctoral student TUM Alumni Professor Dr. Johann Deisenhofer and Hartmut Michel. Just three years later, Robert Huber and his colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work. With their research, the scientists wanted to understand how bacterial cells store solar energy. They succeeded, and the results could even be applied to higher plants. They had thus gained fundamental insights into photosynthesis, the process that is the prerequisite for life on earth.

Researcher For Life

Even today, the X-ray structure analysis of protein crystals is still an important method for several research groups at TUM. And to this very day, with unbroken fascination and curiosity, Robert Huber, who actually became Director Emeritus in 2005, continues to conduct research on specific biochemical problems. In cooperation with international leaders in science and with the best laboratories and pharmaceutical companies worldwide, he is particularly dedicated to the medical aspects of molecules and proteins. “Faraway islands and buried treasures are probably no longer to be discovered,” he smiles. “But countless protein molecules are still awaiting the curious researcher.”

Robert Huber’s findings help in the development of new drugs worldwide, for example for cancer or to regulate the immune system’s hyperactivity towards the body’s own proteins. Putting his research on the back burner and enjoying retirement is not an option for Robert Huber yet: “I hope that TUM doesn’t kick me out at some point,” he jokes. “My research work still means the world to me.”