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Measuring of cell systems – understanding biology with the help of mathematics

The DECHEMA Prize 2008 of the Max Buchner Research Foundation with a value of € 20,000 is conferred on


Professor Dr. rer.nat. Wolfgang Wiechert,University of Siegen / Germany

in recognition of his ground-breaking work on the modelling of metabolic processes that leads to a quantitatively and experimentally proven description of biological systems and their industrial use.

The award will be conferred in the course of a festive colloquium November 28, 2008, 4 p.m. at the DECHEMA Haus, Theodor-Heuss-Allee 25, in Frankfurt/Main.

The DECHEMA Prize of the Max Buchner Research Foundation has been conferred annually since 1951 by DECHEMA, Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, for outstanding research in the fields of applied chemistry, process engineering, biotechnology, and chemical apparatus. Preference is given to younger scientists whose work is fundamentally important and successfully combines theory with practical application.

Photographs from the awards ceremony will be available from the public relations department of DECHEMA e.V., Tel.: +49 69/7564-375, -296, Fax: +49 69/7564-272,


Measuring cells: On the route to quantitative biology

Precise measuring methods and a mathematical description of observed phenomenons are currently regarded more as a characteristic trait of physics than of biology. With the availability of new methods that supply within a short time a large amount of data on the structure and processes of cells, a mathematical description of biological systems becomes possible. A new branch of biology – system biology – aims at illuminating the complex regulatory networks of cells, at understanding them using system-theoretically, and applying the results in practice. As the handling of complex systems is a classical domain of engineers, therefore many system scientists have an engineering background.

Wolfgang Wiechert has been working on the measuring and quantitative description of biological networks for 15 years. He influenced significantly the development of a mtehod for the quantification of material flows in living cells. Being a math graduate, he contributed most notably to the relatively complicated mathematical theory behind the method. The material flow analyses visualizes how an individual cell metabolizes the nutrients (mainly glucose) and uses it for energy generation or the building of the cell mass. It is used today globally in order to diagnose the impact of genetic changes in the course of the development of biotechnological production strains. Material flows are rarely measurable directly; usually, information has to be gathered indirectly by feeding the cells with 13-marked glucose and observing how the trace substance is distributed via the metabolic network. The growth of cells can be compared to the building of a house, where defined proportions of different building blocks are required. Thus, the cell has to have a mechanism that regulates the material supply. If these mechanisms are systematically disturbed, the cell can be motivated to produce on building block in abundance. This allows the industrial production of chemical substances by microorganisms.

In order to learn more about the regulatory networks of cells, the working group of Wolfgang Wiechert evaluates pulse experiments. In these experiments, the nutrient glucose is offered in a sudden burst after a period of starvation. Cells react to the sudden abundance by rapidly changing material flows that can be observed using concentration measurements with a high resolution over time. When these metabolom data were analyzed using mathematical models, conclusions could be made on the regulatory mechanisms. This approach leads step by step to a quantitative, maths-based view of the cell. The results can then be used by engineers as a basis for the development of bio processes.


Professional background of Wolfgang Wiechert

Wolfgang Wiechert (born in 1960) graduated in mathematics and informatics at the University of Bonn and moved subsequently to the newly founded Department of Theoretical Biology at the Botanical Institute in order to apply the methods he had studied in practice. Following postgraduate studies in biotechnology and biotechnical process engineering, he earned his doctorate degree with distinction with a dissertation on the analysis of bio process data. He then moved to the Institute for Biotechnology 2 at Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Centre of Research). In 1986, he merged his research results on the basics for the method of metabolic 13C material flow analysis to a habilitation thesis and was offered the same year the Professorship for Simulation Technology at the Institute for Mechanics and Control Engineering of the Department for Mechanical Engineering at the University of Siegen. 2001 he was awarded the 9th Bellman Prize of the Journal for Mathematical Biosciences for his development of the theoretical foundation of the 13c material flow analysis.

In 2006, he spent six months as a visiting lecturer at the Institute for Computational Science and the Institute for Molecular Systems Biology of the ETH Zurich. A short while ago, Prof. Wiechert was offered the director’s position at the Institute for Biotechnology 2 at Forschungszentrum Jülich.

Wolfgang Wiechert is spokesman of the Siegen Research Centre for Multidisciplinary Analsyis and Applied System Opimitziation (FOMAAS) that focusses on the computational modeling, analysis, simulation and optimiziation of complex systems. He is in charge of the Working Group „System biology and synthetic biology“ of DECHEMA and has been for several years on the board of the German Simulation Association ASIM, responsible for teaching and education.


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