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Ralf Reski - a risk taker who enjoys his work

Ralf Reski has always done what he was really interested in – even if it was full of risks. And this is probably why Ralf Reski has become professor for plant biotechnology at the University of Freiburg. Not only did he have a scientific education, but also a state exam which entitles him to teach at grammar schools. “I could have been teaching biology and chemistry and become a reputable grammar school teacher if my scientific work had gone wrong at some stage,” said Reski. This has always given him the freedom to be courageous and investigate the things that really interested him.

He has always done what he was really interested in: Prof. Ralf Reski. (Photo: University of Freiburg)
He has always done what he was really interested in: Prof. Ralf Reski. (Photo: University of Freiburg) 
Ralf Reski was born in Gelsenkirchen in 1958. In 1961, his family moved to a small village close to Hamburg. It was here that his interest in plants and animals began, thanks to an uncle who had a farm in the neighbourhood. At grammar school he selected biology and physics as his major courses. In 1977, when he received his higher education school leaving examination, genetic engineering and neurobiology were both very much in the public eye.

“I was fascinated by their impact on society,” recalls Reski, and this fascination led to his decision to become journalist. However, a lecture given by the previous chief editor of the Lübecker Nachrichten journal motivated him to study biology. The editor told Reski to get a solid education in the natural sciences before becoming a full-time journalist.
Reski began his biology degree studies in Gießen. Later, he decided to also study biology and chemistry to become teacher. “At that time I couldn’t imagine myself becoming a scientist,” said Reski who is now a well-known plant biotechnologist. He found the majority of his professors to be very conservative and elitist and didn’t want to become one of them. “The only professor in Gießen that I could relate to was the geneticist Fritz Anders, a man who was not popular with his colleagues because of his revolutionary ideas about proto-oncogenes, which are now standard reference book material,” recalls Reski. After his prediploma and intermediate examination, Reski moved to Hamburg and had to decide quickly whether he wanted to be a ‘Diplom’ student or whether he wanted to become teacher. He decided to continue teacher training studies because the state exam would also entitle him to do a doctorate. There is only a slight difference between people with a German state exam and people with a German 'Diplom': Teachers are sought-after people, while for many people with a 'Diplom' in biology, taxi driving is a common source of employment.

A relationship with far-reaching consequences

Reski carried out preliminary experiments for his degree thesis and came into contact with the moss, Physcomitrella patens. This meeting led to a relationship that has had far-reaching consequences for both the moss and Reski. The results of the young student contradicted numerous well-respected publications and what could generally be found in reference books. Reski thought about this conundrum, planned further experiments and talked to his supervisor, the geneticist Prof. Wolfgang Abel. Abel explained his protégé that it was far too risky to make such difficult investigations as part of a degree thesis. However, Reski remained stubborn. He could always be teacher with a thesis that does not yield spectacular scientific results. In addition, he was sure that he had worked carefully in the preliminary experiments and set out to show that bud formation in the moss is different from the reference books at that time. Abel and Reski discussed the topic for hours. Eventually, Reski got the go ahead from his supervisor, did his experiments and showed that the luminaries of the field were wrong. The results of his thesis work were so good that they were published. “The seriousness with which my boss treated me impressed me very much,” recalls Reski.

Reski then did his civilian service at the same time as preparing his doctorate. He sent an application to the German Research Foundation (DFG) asking for financial support for his doctoral thesis. He succeeded and was ready to start his doctorate once he had finished his civilian service. He wanted to write the best possible doctoral thesis and once again, Reski chose a topic that was not free from risks. “I always thought that if I didn’t succeed I could become a teacher.” But, he clearly did succeed. “So then I decided to become a scientist,” said Reski.

A valuable idea was born overnight

Then a series of events started which no one could have predicted: He was offered a C1 post in the department of cell biology and worked hard to write his thesis. He defended the thesis on the last Friday in March 1990 and started the new position on Monday. His supervisor, Prof. Abel, was very fair and left the post-doc money to Reski which the DFG had agreed to pay for his post-doctoral position. This gave him money for materials and equipment which he bitterly needed to equip the new, but almost empty, cell biology lab. Reski decided to continue his work with moss, a cheap plant that can grow easily with many others of its kind in a single Petri dish. In addition, the geneticist was fascinated by the moss’s short generation time.

One day, while having lunch, something happened that turned the plant geneticist into a biotechnologist. Reski’s colleagues were discussing an idea to set up a biotechnological graduate college in cooperation with scientists from the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg. Reski heard them mention that, unfortunately, moss could not be used biotechnologically. “I didn’t want to accept this and wanted to prove them wrong,” recalls Reski. Membership in the graduate college also meant sufficient money to pay a doctoral student for three years. At that time, Reski was already able to grow the moss in fluid culture and formulated his project idea overnight: His plan was to develop a bioreactor in which Physcomitrella could grow under standardised conditions. He also hoped to transform the moss and produce pharmaceutically-relevant proteins. Reski’s plan turned out to work brilliantly and if everything goes smoothly, the company greenovation will soon earn money thanks to some hard-working Physcomitrella, producing therapeutic antibodies.

The best thing about it: cooperation with BASF

“I have also done what I really enjoyed during my habilitation. There was always the alternative to become teacher,” said Reski. He did not need to change jobs because the experiments turned out to be successful. Reski received his habilitation in general botanics and was offered a professorship in Oslo (Norway), which he declined in favour of a Heisenberg scholarship of the DFG at the University of Freiburg. Then came the icing on the cake: In Hamburg he was involved in a “small project” with BASF. That’s how the company heard that Reski was looking for an industrial partner. He had developed a technology with which it was possible to switch off specific moss genes and hoped to identify economically-relevant Physcomitrella DNA sections.

BASF was very interested in the idea and invested 16 million Marks in the project. In 1998, this was an incredible sum, enabling the establishment of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology with a staff of 40. Before people learnt about this cooperation, Reski was offered professorships at the University of Dresden, Bremen and Rostock. This was a difficult situation for the University of Freiburg as it didn’t have a professorship to offer Reski. However, Rector Wolfgang Jäger somehow succeeded in acquiring funds for a completely new chair. Reski decided to stay in Freiburg and became professor for plant biotechnology. Today, he advises everybody to do exactly what they are really interested in. His own history has taught him: “That’s the only way to retain your enthusiasm for what you’re doing.”

kb – 21 May 2007
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH
Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski is a member of the supervisory board of BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH and witnessed its foundation. Reski was part of a Baden-Württemberg delegation that visited California in 2002. “The high-tech region number one in Europe went to meet the number one of the world in order to learn something,” recalls Reski. “It was soon clear that it was still possible to coordinate the aims of the different bioregions and the cooperation with the ministries more effectively,” adds Reski, who thinks that this venture was worth it. For him, BIOPRO is a “quality leap”. But this is not the only aspect that keeps Reski in Baden-Württemberg. He also works in close cooperation with Technologiestiftung BioMed in Freiburg, an organisation that provided greenovation, the company cofounded by Reski, with valuable support during its early days.

Further informatioin:
Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski
University of Freiburg
Institute for Biology II
79104 Freiburg
Phone: +49 (0)761/ 203-6968
Fax: +49 (0)761/ 203-6967
E-mail: ralf.reski@biologie.uni-freiburg.de
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