TUM Emeritus of Excellence Karl-Heinz Schleifer

“Microorganisms awakened the researcher in me”

Staphylococcus schleiferi is a small living being, a bacterium. It owes its proud name to TUM alumnus Karl-Heinz Schleifer. But within an inch Staphylococcus schleiferi and some of its small friends may well have been named completely different.

When Karl-Heinz Schleifer began his studies at TUM in 1959, he actually wanted to become a high school teacher for Biology, Chemistry and Geography. But as so often, life’s coincidences take us on new and unexpected paths. So it was that Karl-Heinz Schleifer abandoned his teaching studies – fortunately – and entered into the world of research microbiology. The crucial factor in this change of direction was the work that Schleifer had to do in order to be able to sit the state examination to become a teacher. He spent almost one year working in a laboratory. Together with his fellow students, he enthusiastically conducted experiments on microorganisms. “These moments inspired me so much that I would have liked to skip the state exam entirely. I wanted to start my doctorate right away”, he says.

From this point on Karl-Heinz Schleifer was infected. Although he still passed his state examination, he withdrew from the traineeship and began directly doing research. Only two and a half years later he was awarded a doctorate – “summa cum laude”. It marked the beginning of an outstanding scientific career that made Karl-Heinz Schleifer one of the most cited microbiologists in the world.

At the forefront of microbial research

From now on, Schleifer was driven by his enthusiasm. He immersed himself in the diverse world of microbes, he made discoveries of global importance and turned the TUM into one world-leader in microbiology. Microbes are micro-organisms – tiny creatures that are at home for example in water or on our bodies. The term includes bacteria, fungi and viruses. Karl-Heinz Schleifer discovered many of these hitherto unknown tiny organisms. In addition to Staphylococcus schleiferi other organisms such as Schleiferia thermophile, Microbacterium schleiferi, and Schleiferella became members of the Schleifer family.

His new family members were not only little organisms, but also representatives of the Homo sapiens , namely his employees. Cooperation and exchange have always been important to him. He and his team also succeeded in developing a highly innovative technology: microbial gene probes. They were the first scientists in Europe to use the gene probes, which enable the direct detection of bacteria, for example in wastewater or sewage treatment plants. This made the cultivation of microbes in the laboratory unnecessary – an enormous increase in efficiency.


Enthusiasm is the key to success

Karl-Heinz Schleifer has always been able to excite his students. The numbers speak for themselves. He has successfully supervised 115 doctoral candidates. “Thirteen of my former employees are professors today, five of them at foreign universities,” he says proudly. Karl-Heinz Schleifer is someone who likes to share his experiences and is always ready to give helpful advice to students, doctoral students and, above all, post-doctoral students.

One piece of advice he gives to many is based on his own detour through teaching studies: “I always advise students: Choose an area as early as possible that best suits your interests.” He is convinced that success is only possible if the work is backed up with enthusiasm.

And what about Staphylococcus schleiferis’ tiny relatives? With the right dose of passion, there is practically nothing preventing the academic starts of the future becoming namesakes of these organisms.