I was born on September 30, 1943 in Zusamaltheim, Bavaria, now Federal Republic of Germany, as the first son of Thekla and Johann Deisenhofer. After my father’s return from military service my parents ran the family farm. In 1948, our family grew to its final size with the birth of my only sister, Antonie.
My early youth was influenced by the environment provided by a little village that, after World War II, tried to find its way back to some kind of a normal life. Nevertheless, it was a most enjoyable place for a little boy. In 1949, I entered elementary school at Zusamaltheim, and continued to attend until 1956. According to the local custom, the oldest son was designated to take over the family’s farm. However, to their great disappointment, my parents early noticed my lack of interest in farming, and made the difficult decision to send me away to school. My way to higher education started in 1956 at the “Knabenmittelschule HI. Kreuz”, Donanwoerth, and continued 1957 to 1959 at the “Staatliche Realschule Wertingen” and 1959 to 1963 at the “Holbein Gymnasium”, Augsburg. There, in 1963, I underwent the “Abitur” examination that allowed me to go to a university. I was awarded the “Stipendium für besonders Begabte” of the “Bayerische Staatsministerium für Unterricht und Kultus” which helped to lower the financial burden on my parents for my education.
In the fall of 1965, after 18 months of military service in the German Bundeswehr, where I did not exceed the rank of private, I began to study physics at the Technische Universität München. A major reason for choosing physics was an interest in physical, especially astronomical problems, aroused by popular books on this subject. The book I most clearly remember was a popular review of the state of astronomy by Fred Hoyle, describing the impact of modern physics on astronomy, and the recent achievements and open questions in that field. The Technische Universität München (TUM) was the obvious choice because Rudolf L. Moessbauer had just accepted a professorship at the TUM; moreover Munich is only about 100 km from Zusamaltheim.
During my time at the TUM, I learned that physics was quite different from what I expected; also, my interest slowly shifted to solid state physics. Together with a couple of colleagues I started my Diplomarbeit in this field in the laboratory of Klaus Dransfeld. As it turned out, Klaus Dransfeld was a person almost as shy as myself, so that we could not establish a good personal contact at the time. Nevertheless, the experimental work I did under the supervision of Karl-Friedrich Renk in Dransfeld’s lab was very successful, and led to a publication in Physical Review Letters in 1971; this was my first scientific publication. During my time in his lab, Klaus Dransfeld transmitted his interest in biophysical problems to many students. This had direct consequences for my career because it made me look for a suitable institution to get a Ph. D. in this field. From a friend I heard about a new group at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eiweiss- und Lederforschung whose head, Robert Huber, was looking for students. After a brief interview with Robert Huber, it was agreed that I could start my work in June 1971, following the final examination for my physics diploma at the TUM. In 1972, the institute moved a few kilometers from Munich to Martinsried, and became the “Max-Planck-Institut für Biochemie”. The work I did together with Wolfgang Steigemann (also one of Huber’s Ph.D. students at that time) on the crystallographic refinement of the structure of bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor was a success, and our 1975 paper in Acta Crystallographica has been cited ever since.
At the end of 1974, when I had obtained my Ph.D. degree, Robert Huber offered me a postdoctoral position for two years which I accepted. This position was converted into a permanent position in 1976. I joined Peter M. Colman, then a postdoctoral fellow in Huber’s lab, and Walter Palm from the University of Graz, Austria, in their work on the human myeloma protein Kol. After the solution of this interesting structure, I continued, together with Robert Huber, Peter Colman’s work on the human Fc-fragment, and its complex with an Fc-binding fragment from protein A from Staphylococcus aureus. The refinement of these structures was finished in 1980. In the following two years I joined several projects in Robert Huber’s lab: human C3a, citrate synthase, and alpha-1 -proteinase inhibitor. During all my time in Martinsried I enjoyed working with computers, and developing and maintaining crystallographic software.
In 1982, Hartmut Michel, who had come to Martinsried together with Dieter Oesterhelt, reported in one of Huber’s group seminars about his spectacular success with the crystallization of the photosynthetic reaction center from Rhodopseudomonas viridis. After discussions between Hartmut and myself, and after Robert Huber had given his agreement, I joined the reaction center project in order to determine the three-dimensional structure of this molecule. Shortly afterwards Kunio Miki, a post-doctoral fellow from Osaka University, arrived in Martinsried, and helped us until September 1983. Later Otto Epp, a colleague and friend since I joined the Max Planck-Institute, made most valuable contributions to the project.
In a surprisingly short time, at the end of 1983, we came to a point where the success of the project was at the horizon. It still took almost two years until we had worked out the complete structure, and two more years to refine the model at 2.3Å resolution.
The work on the photosynthetic reaction center changed my life in many ways. It was a special privilege to belong to the very small group of people who saw the structural model of this molecule grow on the screen of a computer workstation, and it is hard to describe the excitement I felt during this period of the work. Soon after the news of our success spread through the interested scientific community, we received many invitations to report our results during scientific meetings, in seminars, and even in TV shows. The wide recognition of our work also opened the possibility for me to move to a new place, and to build a research group of my own. The best of several opportunities was an offer from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas which I joined in March 1988 to become Professor of Biochemistry, and Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Almost immediately after my arrival I fell in love with Kirsten Fischer Lindahl, Professor of Microbiology and Biochemistry and Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; we got married in 1989.
For the determination of the three-dimensional structure of the reaction center Hartmut Michel and I received the 1986 Biological Physics Prize of the American Physical Society, and the 1988 Otto Bayer Prize. The 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was followed by several non-scientific honors such as honorary citizenships of my home town Zusamaltheim and of my current residence Dallas, and a high order of the Federal Republic of Germany. I am a member of the Academia Europaea, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Their work and discoveries range from paleogenomics and click chemistry to documenting war crimes.
See them all presented here.