Technology for human health

New cryo-electron microscopy professorship and new equipment

23.05.2019 – The ETH Board has appointed Martin Pilhofer Professor of Cryo-Electron Microscopy with effect from 1 June 2019. Pilhofer previously held the position of Assistant Professor at the Department of Biology’s Institute of Molecular Biology and Biophysics at ETH Zurich. This new professorship was made possible thanks to the generous support of the NOMIS Foundation and the Monique Dornonville de la Cour-Stiftung. The professorship will focus primarily on the development of new methods of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Invaluable funding from the August von Finck family and the Baugarten Stiftung has enabled the university to purchase cutting-edge cryo-EM equipment and to upgrade existing equipment.

There have been rapid developments in cryo-EM in recent years, and today the technology can be used to produce extremely high-resolution, three-dimensional images of molecular complexes and whole cell structures. This has opened up new research possibilities into the structural basis of biochemical processes in healthy and sick cells. In 2017, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three researchers who have significantly advanced the development of cryo-EM, including Jacques Dubochet from Switzerland.

New era in biochemistry

Pilhofer’s research group will investigate what are known as macromolecular machines – complexes of molecules that mediate the interaction between bacterial cells and host cells. Cryo-EM plays an essential role in making these processes visible in their cellular context. With the development of such innovative methods, Pilhofer’s group will contribute to ETH Zurich’s position in the vanguard of cryo-EM research. This will not only benefit structural biology but many other research fields too, particularly medicine.

Pilhofer completed his doctorate at the Technical University of Munich’s Institute of Microbiology in 2008. He went on to work as a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Pasadena (USA) until 2013. He has been selected as an EMBO Young Investigator and was the recipient of a European Research Council Starting Grant.

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