Prof. Dr. Ralph Bock
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Dr. Ulrike Glaubitz
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Medalled: Professor Ralph Bock awarded with the Martin Gibbs Medal

The director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology established new directions in plant science

July 05, 2017

The Science landscape of Potsdam is diverse. In Golm, there is a big group of researchers studying plants. Among them is Professor Ralph Bock, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology (MPI-MP). Under his direction, several research groups study the chloroplasts, the organelles in plant cells that are responsible for photosynthesis, the process by which plants generate chemical energy from sunlight. In the course of this work, he established a completely new field of research.

A fascinating question in research on the evolution of life on Earth concerns the development of higher organisms from single primitive cells, a process that started more than 2 billion years ago. The team of Ralph Bock succeeded with bringing essential steps in plant genome evolution to the laboratory by reconstructing them in real time and analyzing the underlying molecular mechanisms. The team started this research by studying the genome of chloroplasts, the green organelles of plant cells that evolved from photosynthetic bacteria, so-called cyanobacteria. The bacteria were taken up by primordial plant cells more than a billion years ago and were subsequently established as cell organelles. A large portion of the original bacterial genes was, step by step, transferred to the genome in the nucleus. Until recently, the molecular mechanisms of this gene movement were largely unknown.

Ralph Bock developed experimental approaches to reconstruct this gene transfer from the chloroplast to the nucleus in the lab and watch it in real time. Moreover, he discovered what is now known as horizontal genome transfer. Here, complete genomes move from one organism to another, a process that can result in the generation of new species. Ralph Bock’s team managed to reconstruct also this process in lab experiments. With this work, Ralph Bock founded a new research field: experimental evolution in plants. For his pioneering research, he was now honored with the Martin Gibbs Medal of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), the largest professional society devoted to the advancement of the plant sciences.

The Martin Gibbs Medal, established in 1993, is presented biennially to a researcher who has pioneered advances that have served to establish new directions of investigation in the plant sciences.

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