For the biochemist Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker on his eightieth birthday

VMuch of the prestige capital that has been gained by some sciences since the beginning of the pandemic has a long history. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker played a key role in it. Not all of it, however, enjoys the popularity that virology can undoubtedly hold onto. Winnacker, the Frankfurt-born biochemist, son of the former Hoechst CEO Karl Winnacker, is a child of the molecular biological revolution.

Joachim Müller-Jung

Editor in the features section, responsible for the “Nature and Science” section.

The successful new generation of mRNA and vector vaccines against Covid-19 would be practically impossible without a deep understanding of the matter behind heredity and the mechanistic worldview of this generation of researchers, which is negligently often still frowned upon. The gene as the central unit of information in life has been the subject of several successful books by Winnacker. And it triggered something that was recognized as clearly and early in its social and political scope by a few as by Winnacker.

Today, when suddenly everyone is dealing with terms such as virus variants and mutations, this is easy to understand. At the end of the sixties and in the seventies, when Winnacker started, first at the ETH Zurich, then at the University of California in Berkeley, shortly afterwards at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and finally in 1972 as an assistant at the Institute for Genetics at the University of Cologne, to unravel the “thread of life” biochemically, a spirit was kindled that today can best be compared with the fantastic to creepy designs in Artificial Intelligence. Winnacker went to Munich University as a professor from Cologne in 1977. He was, if you will, the obstetrician of two of the soon to be four German gene centers. And it shouldn’t be his only scientific midwifery service.

Start-up founder and broker

The young biochemist, who dealt intensively with cells, viruses and misfolded proteins in the laboratory, soon became a start-up founder and skilled mediator – today one would say communicator. Not a diplomat, because Winnacker is not a trifle. His occasionally sharply honed language, which is then pointed with equally sharp irony, reveals his most striking trait, which must have distinguished him as a young pianist with concert ambitions: determination and a will to unconditional excellence.

His contacts with politics and business were so numerous and successful at the beginning of his time in Munich that over the years he secured an almost unprecedented influence in practically all social spheres to this day. Winnacker first shaped the study commission on the opportunities and risks of genetic engineering, became President of the German Research Foundation for eight years in 1998, made it even more powerful and independent of the sovereigns as a central research sponsor and finally became the first Secretary General of the European Research Council to a key position for the at least Top-level research on the continent, which has lagged behind the USA and China in terms of quantity. At least that is Winnacker’s hope and not just his. But the attempt to keep out the proportional representation of nations in favor of highly selective research on the elites turned out to be “shock therapy” for him.

The encounter with the Brussels “elites” turned out to be a disaster. Socially and, above all, biopolitically, however, his influence remained undiminished even as an emeritus. He continued the large-scale debate on stem cell research in the country, which he had initiated as DFG President, achieved relief for researchers and was appointed as the international examiner of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has since been shaken by a scandal. A few weeks ago, as a member of the working group of the Leopoldina statement in favor of broader basic research with “surplus” in vitro embryos, he demonstrated how much he cares about following top international research with a view to the revolutions in the life sciences. A new book on “My Life with Viruses” is intended to underline this request for everyone to see. This Monday Ernst-Ludwig-Winnacker celebrates his eightieth birthday.


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