Bert Sakmann


Interview, July 2003

Interview with Professor Bert Sakmann by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 53rd meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 30 June-4 July 2003.

Professor Sakmann talks about his collaboration and friendship with Erwin Neher; how limited funding can be a benefit (4:49); the need for basic research (6:59); his present research on the mechanisms that underlie learning (9:33); how the risks of gene technology are overstated (14:02); and his thoughts of the discovery (15:39).

Interview transcript

Very welcome Professor Sakmann. We’re very, very happy to meet you today. We talked about sharing results and friendship and you worked very closely with your fellow colleague.

Bert Sakmann: Erwin Neher.

You said despite the fact that you are not still working from the same physical site you’re still continuing to exchange information.

Bert Sakmann: Yes, a lot.

Why is that and what benefit has it given you?

Bert Sakmann: We are talking about what happened over the many years after the Nobel Prize was awarded and many years after we did the initial work for which we got it so we are talking about the last maybe 6-7 years and it is the common interest, you know, in order to find out how a synapse, you probably know what a synapse is, how synapse works. We have been looking for a new preparation. We found it, we established the way how to look at it.

… there’s still a very close personal friendship, which is mostly driven by, you know, curiosity …

Erwin had other techniques available, like release of calcium from cage compound and it was only natural that we start to collaborate again on a topic that both of us find very interesting and which had basically nothing to do with what we did 20 years ago, or 30 years go. So I don’t know whether this answers your question, but what I want to say is there’s still a very close personal friendship, which is mostly driven by curiosity, find out how things work.

Is it important to share your findings with other scientists and with students?

Bert Sakmann: There is always a competition and one wants to share results once they’re published and this is good practice, it’s got to be and in our case it worked out very nicely because the results which you get have to be validated by as many laboratories as possible. In science very often they are singular achievements and it has been taken many years to validate them so other people could repeat them and the faster this happens the earlier you can proceed,  you can proceed in looking into other questions and people will take you seriously.

So once it’s published you should do everything to make the result and all the techniques involved available to other people but as long as you’re in the process of following an idea, first of all you have to have an idea, then you follow it. You find out whether you can falsify it or whether it is true and then publish it. I wouldn’t share too many results with immediate competitors but in the case of Erwin and myself we are a team from the very beginning because we did experiments together. I mean sitting together at the experimental set up and taking shifts.

Did you support each other during those years of working very hard, when somebody felt a little bit despair or down the other one could support the other person?

Bert Sakmann: I must say in this respect Erwin is just unique because he never got excited or despaired. He has what we would call in Germany, ‘Bayerische bierruhe’. I’ve never seen Erwin, these 30 years, getting excited about things which are not related to science. I mean he gets very excited about science but not about external facts. So this had a very good influence on our comfortability or whatever you call it because he was so quiet and didn’t get excited by people, saying bad things or, you know, there are many things that happen in the lab.

Because there could be many hiccups and people who don’t believe in the work that you’re doing as well. I’m thinking about young students today, what qualities do they have to have to be able to continue, particularly as funding is getting more scarce?

Bert Sakmann: Well, you know, it’s easy to say this in retrospect but at the time when we started to collaborate in the 1970s you could still do quite elaborate experiments with a relatively little funding. Most of our money at the time was spent in developing tools, the tools which we developed in order to achieve our goal and verify the idea of ion channels elementary currents.

That’s a little glass …

… we had limited funding and this can be a benefit …

Bert Sakmann: Well, it’s not one of the glass pipette, it’s getting the right preparations that is frog muscles, you have to innovate a frog muscle you have to get the electronics, you have to have micro manipulators, you have to have a table that is almost completely free of vibrations. So in retrospect we had a relatively large investment in the beginning into, so to speak, our tools but then the consumables, the cost for the consumables were rather low, which is the opposite in many cases nowadays that you spend a lot of money on chemicals like restriction enzymes or things that are being sold by the industry and the industry wants to make money. So to summarize is we had limited funding and this can be a benefit even because you think of how you can solve a problem without spending too much money.

A lot of discussions have been around the need for basic research. What is your opinion because it seems like a lot more research is now coming towards should be applied science?

Bert Sakmann: I think this is a, I would say, European attitude because the European science politicians are not the most enlightened in the world.

Why not?

Bert Sakmann: This is what I was trying to ask Professor Marcus today why is there this difference between the States and Europe and I would exclude England from Europe because they still have an Anglo-American tradition in investing into basic science. I mean I shouldn’t complain, in Germany we still have the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft but the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft is just the top of the whole science enterprise and it would be nice if basic science would be more funded at the universities because this is where the students are being educated and we cannot do research without well educated students.

It seems like there’s then, as you say, this brain drain could lead to the scientific world here in Europe sort of becomes weaker and we don’t develop new methods.

Bert Sakmann: That’s what’s happening. I mean despite what we hear from the politicians, especially from our present government, that they want to invest into science I think this is all, you know, hot air if I may say so, which I don’t know what the motives are but on the one side there is this appreciation of basic science, on the other side it’s been cut away in favour of applied science and my speculation is that politicians can’t think ahead more than two years this will have an effect in 5-10 years, it has already an effect. We will be completely dominated by American science has happened and this will happen.

You have changed field partly and now looking more into the brain. Would you describe that in a way that we can understand? What are the issues that you really would like to get to at the moment by doing this research?

… what are the mechanisms that underlie learning …

Bert Sakmann: My goal, so to speak, is to understand how the brain, based on the change of experience, let’s say training or the lack of training, changes instructed such that the brain can perform a new task. Is this simple enough? You might say what are the mechanisms that underlie learning, ok. Now this can be described at a phenomenological logical level. Say you do this and this and then the brain will react like this, but the effect of all this is based on the change of the interaction of particular molecules and that’s what we want to find out; a change in brain structure induced by a difference in your external world that we can explain in molecular terms, and the structure that we have chosen is the cortex. This is sort of a mantle that covers the whole brain because there’s good evidence that most of these functions, the ability to learn, are located in the cells of the cortex and to be more specific there’s also good evidence that the changes in cortical organisation induced by change in experience are based on the change in the structure of particular contact points, which are referred to as synapses.

So my research at present is directed to understand the change in cortical structure at the level of synapses. What is happening when the brain has a new ability, how do the cells reconnect? How stable is this, is this happening for a period of days, for hours, for years? Does it come back? I mean the whole process of learning, if you may say so, or of development, is very well described at the phenomenological level but what we need to know is which molecules are involved in that.

Now it’s also the discussion about genes and what is controlling, for example, different diseases. Partly through mass media, I think the public in general has got the impression that by the knowledge we now have about the gene set up that things would be more easy, for example treating certain diseases. Is that so or is the situation much more complex?

Bert Sakmann: Maybe I’m a bit provocative but serious scientists never believed this sort of propaganda that came out of part of the molecular biology establishment. This was, you know, driven by too much publicity and I must say some of the molecular biology establishment has really overdone this, maybe in conjunction with the media but I think every serious scientist never thought it would be that simple. I only hope that the false promises that were made for gene therapy, the promises that were made for what we learn, I mean not what we learn academically, but what we will benefit from the genome and what we will benefit from stem cells are formulated a bit more cautiously so that the public does not get the impression science is driven too much by PR. I think it’s a bit of a problem and it also attracts the wrong people to science.

And the risks that have been so much debated over the last number of years. Do you see that with the gene technology? Super humans or so on. 

I think these are scenarios which are so far away from reality that one doesn’t have to take them seriously  …

Bert Sakmann: With respect to interfering in a rational way I think we are not 100 years, we are 500 years away. So this is completely overstated by people who have very different interests in, how do you say, hitting at molecular biology. I think these are scenarios which are so far away from reality that one doesn’t have to take them seriously but there are other more serious problems; who has access to information on your genome. In those cases there is indeed a single gene defect causing a disease, you know, I mean there are big successes in what you would call molecular medicine. So far this has been mostly on a rather limited fraction of diseases where you have one gene disease and there indeed I can see that rules have to be established but I think this can be done. I don’t think it’s going to be too difficult to establish proper rules.

Your discovery certainly have made it more easy to find out about how the system works and how the diseases are part of this. What makes you most proud of your discovery if you look back at what you have achieved?

Bert Sakmann: This was an unexpected benefit let’s say. There is a new class of diseases that came up in the last, yes I would say 10 years, they are called channelopathies. This means diseases related to defects in the function of ion channels and all of a sudden ion channels and electrical signals, which we’re not very popular for the general public because it’s somewhat difficult to understand how electrical signal comes about and that we all run on electrical signals but this development of finding channelopathies is quite, you know, rewarding I would say although I would have to say the major impact is not that we can look at ion channels, we can look at their defects but without the parallel development of molecular biology this would not have been possible. So you are now in a situation to be able to screen for defects in ion channels and you can, using our methods, find out what is really wrong with the function or what is not functioning properly.

On a more personal level, both you and your wife are hardworking scientists. Have got any advice, I mean how is it possible to combine these two, you know, in a fast track life that so many people are living? Do you have time for leisure? Do you have time to structure your thoughts and go on?

Bert Sakmann: The leisure for many, many years were our children . I mean we had two things which was work and family and nothing else . I mean you just have to take compromises and we felt that having children is so exciting that there’s no room for anything else.

Certainly. Thank you very much professor. I enjoyed speaking to you.

Interview, July 2003

Interview with Professor Bert Sakmann by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 53rd meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 30 June-4 July 2003.

Professor Sakmann talks about his collaboration and friendship with Erwin Neher; how limited funding can be a benefit (4:49); the need for basic research (6:59); his present research on the mechanisms that underlie learning (9:33); how the risks of gene technology are overstated (14:02); and his thoughts of the discovery (15:39).

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