The light-brown liquid churns slowly in a gentle, even rhythm. Probes monitor various parameters, including temperature and oxygen content. A stirring bar keeps the mixture in motion. After two to three days, the product of these microorganisms could form the basis for a medicine designed to combat cancer or multiple sclerosis.
The Consortium – the central research unit within the WACKER Department of Biotechnology – has 30 employees, and Markus Brunner is one of them. “A lot of products are too complex to produce using chemical synthesis routes,” the researcher explains. “That’s why we’re exploring biotech processes.”
He and his two colleagues have to coax the bacteria in the liquid growth medium to produce as much of the desired protein as possible. Originally from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, the young biotechnologist investigates various parameters, such as the temperature at which the microorganisms must be cultured in order to achieve good bacterial growth and high protein yields.
The bacteria swimming in Brunner’s fermenter are from the lab supervised by Dr. Marcel Thön, who is tasked with reprogramming these tiny microorganisms. “It’s an amazingly exciting job,” explains the young researcher from Thuringia. “I make the bacteria do something that they didn’t use to do.” The 34-year-old has been leading a research group at the Consortium since 2011. It is his hope that no one will have to die of cancer 100 years from now. And maybe his bacteria can be part of that achievement.
Because only a few of these “pets” are actually promising, Thön does his lab work on a large scale, studying thousands of protein samples with the aid of his five lab technicians. The lion’s share of the work, however, is done by a colleague who does not receive a salary: a high-throughput system that Thön’s lab workers have christened “Robbi.” This robot dispenses thousands of protein samples into reaction vessels, analyses them and records the results.
Despite the robotic help, however, it is the mircroorganisms that dictate the biotechnologists’ daily work, as Brunner and both of his colleagues have to adjust their rhythms to match the growth of the bacteria. If growth rates are off schedule even slightly, for instance, lunch will simply have to wait.
Outside of the lab, however, Brunner does have some clearly structured time: a soccer game lasts 90 minutes. The natural scientist is a passionate player, and Consortium colleagues meet regularly for after-work matches on the adjacent playing field. Brunner also enjoys playing in matches against a soccer team from WACKER Headquarters. “Despite our hard work, we lost the last two matches,” Brunner notes. But soccer and bacterial research have a lot in common: you never know when there might be a big win.