On the trail of our ancestors

September 20, 2022

NOMIS researcher Martin Pilhofer has been profiled in an article by Beat Gygi in Die Weltwoche. The article was published in German; an English translation of the introduction follows.

Nobel Prize winner Kurt Wüthrich sees Martin Pilhofer as one of the most promising scientists. We visited the young professor of molecular biology and biophysics at ETH.

Martin Pilhofer (Photo: Die Weltwoche)

It is the very expensive, heavy machines that Martin Pilhofer needs for his work. When he shows us where he conducts his experiments, we go deep into the basement of the building at ETH Hönggerberg, down wide cable ducts to the electron microscopes, which stand on thick concrete slabs so that they are protected from any vibration. Three microscopes in high housings, unit price 5 to 9 million Swiss francs, anchored rock solid. And then the total contrast: with the giant machines, Pilhofer’s team is researching one of the smallest things imaginable: the inner life of tiny cellular organisms.

With this world-class apparatus, the scientists gain nanometer-precise insight into the structures of single-celled organisms, which have previously been elaborately prepared for analysis. Pilhofer briefly explains what is currently visible on the screen: Cell walls, contact points, small structures with special functions that are being explored. A few floors up in his office, he shows more results from the electron microscope, images, spatial views, sequences: You can see cells with internal support structures, even regular injection systems in the form of structures that contract, then snap apart at lightning speed, shooting off material like a harpoon. Other sequences show how bacteria on the prowl swallow up other cells.

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Read the online article (subscription only; German language): Den Vorfahren auf der Spur

Download the pdf (German language; reprinted with permission from Beat Gygi, Die Weltwoche): Den Vorfahren auf der Spur