Thomas Sommer

Between Buch and Haifa

The cellular biologist Thomas Sommer, who is the interim Scientific Director of the MDC, is celebrating his 60th birthday on May 23. We congratulate him on this milestone.

Thomas Sommer has been a researcher at the Max Delbrück Center since 1993, and since the beginning of this week, the internationally renowned and well-connected cellular biologist has – for the second time – been serving as the interim head of the MDC. It wouldn’t have been possible to give the Berlin scientist a more exciting birthday present: Thomas Sommer is turning 60 this Thursday!  

Sommer is held in high esteem at the Center – as a researcher, manager, networker, colleague, and supporter of young scientists. Despite being on the Board of Directors, he is approachable and accessible, his co-workers say. For many years he served as the elected PhD Ombudsperson, a post that requires a great degree of trust. This man disdains long bureaucratic meetings, preferring to go about matters more pragmatically, and is considered here to be effective, structured, and well organized.

Well connected in the scientific community

Thomas Sommer is a product of West Berlin. He went to school there, and in 1988 he earned his doctorate (Dr. rer. Nat) there, at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics and at Freie Universität Berlin. After a stint in Tübingen (1989–1993), where he conducted postdoc research at the Friedrich Miescher Institute of the Max Planck Society, Sommer returned to the capital city. 

Since 1993 he has headed the Intracellular Proteolysis group at the MDC in Buch. Several of Sommer’s discoveries have long since found their way into textbooks. Proteins are responsible for virtually everything that goes on in our bodies: They are building blocks of cells, transport oxygen in the blood, regulate metabolism, and much more. This diverse array of vital proteins is manufactured in tiny molecular machines called ribosomes. Errors often occur here, causing, for example, proteins to be folded incorrectly. On top of this, there are intact proteins that have fulfilled their purpose and are not needed anymore. But before such proteins can disrupt the balance in the cells, waste disposal takes place. 

It is vitally important for the organism that faulty or unnecessary proteins be tagged and eventually disassembled and recycled in the cell’s shredder – the proteasome. 
If this waste disposal process breaks down or doesn’t work properly, the result can be the development of serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.  Of central importance here is the peptide ubiquitin, which is a main focus of Sommer’s research. Flawed proteins are tagged with ubiquitin chains, which function like labels that say: “That needs to be trashed.” The waste disposal process is one of the most important cellular functions.

Sommer has held an honorary professorship at Charité since 2006, and he has served as professor of cellular biochemistry at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin since 2009. The biologist is well connected in Berlin’s scientific community and policymaking circles. He knows and respects the key actors, and they know and respect him. 

German-Israeli friendship

That doesn’t mean that Sommer is not successful on the national and international stage. He has helped paved the way for German-Israeli scientific cooperation within the Helmholtz Association. For many years he has maintained close ties to researchers in Israel. Sommer has not only studied ubiquitin in the lab with Professor Aaron Ciechanover (Technion, Haifa), but he is also close friends with the Nobel Prize winner. He is also collaborating with research teams at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2012 he was awarded the Science Prize of the German Technion Society. Since 2017 he has been a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He is also a scientific adviser for the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF). 

Since 2003 Sommer has been a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). Sommer is actively involved in the EU-LIFE alliance and is on the Board of Directors of the German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK). He is also active in the German Research Foundation (DFG ): He was previously a member of its Senate Committee on Collaborative Research Centres. Since 2018 he is an elected member of its Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct, which is a special honor and responsibility for any scientist. 

That’s a lot of roles, a lot of work, and a lot of commitment for someone who says he likes to sleep late, prepare delicious meals, and generally enjoy life. This apparently includes taking part in world of science, with all its inspiring people and ideas. The MDC hopes this remains the case for a long time to come. Happy birthday!