Dieter Oesterhelt (1940 – 2022)

Dieter Oesterhelt (1940 – 2022)

Author: ChemistryViews


Professor Emeritus Dieter Oesterhelt, Harvard University, Munich, Germany, has passed away on November 28, 2022. He is known for the discovery of bacteriorhodopsin and as a pioneer of optogenetics. His research focussed on photosynthesis in bacteria and archaea.

During his research stay in San Francisco, USA, Oesterhelt succeeded in detecting the rhodopsin-like protein bacteriorhodopsin in the cell membrane of Halobacterium salinarum. He was able to demonstrate that bacteriorhodopsin contains the chromophore retinal (vitamin A aldehyde) and that the physiological function of bacteriorhodopsin is to pump protons out of the cell. The resulting proton gradient can be used by ATP synthase to produce ATP. He thus discovered a previously unknown, very simple type of photosynthesis that differs from photosynthesis in plants.

Members of his department at the MPI of Biochemistry investigated structure-function relationships of membrane proteins as well as other microbial rhodopsins such as sensorhodopsins or the chloride pump halorhodopsin. The latter became a molecular tool of optogenetics, a new field of research in neurobiology. Optogenetics uses such molecular channels and pumps to selectively modify the activity of neurons using light.


Dieter Oesterhelt, born in Munich on November 10, 1940, studied chemistry at the University of Munich from 1959 to 1963 and obtained his Ph.D. at the same university from 1964 to 1967 under Feodor Lynen. Subsequently, he was a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Cell Chemistry until 1969. From 1969 to 1973, he worked as an academic counselor at the Institute of Biochemistry of the University of Munich, in 1969/70, he completed a research stay with the electron microscopist Walther Stoeckenius at the University of California, San Francisco, USA. In 1973, he received his habilitation in Munich, and in 1975 he was a junior group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory in Tübingen, Germany. From 1976 to 1979, he was a full professor at the University of Würzburg, Germany. Dieter Oesterhelt was a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and Director at the MPI of Biochemistry, Martinsried, Germany, from 1980. In 2008, he became an emeritus professor. Since then, he has headed an Emeritus Research Group at the MPI of Biochemistry.

Among many other honors, Dieter Oesterhelt received the Liebig Medal in 1983, the Otto Warburg Medal in 1991, the Alfried-Krupp-Wissenschaftspreis in 1998, the Werner von Siemens Ring in 2000, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2004, and Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2021.

He was a Member of the Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Academia Europaea.

Selected Publications


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