Otto Warburg

Otto Heinrich Warburg (born 8 October 1883, Freiburg; died 1 August 1970, Berlin)

Otto Heinrich Warburg is among the most important figures of the 20th century in biochemistry. In 1926, he figured out the mechanism of cell respiration with his discovery of cytochrome oxidase. For this discovery he received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1931.

The renowned Warburg family has produced academics and philosophers, business men and bankers. His father, Emil Gabriel Warburg (1846-1931), was a leading physicist of his time.

Warburg studied chemistry under the famous scientist Emil Fischer, and went on to study medicine in Berlin, Munich and Heidelberg. Between 1908 and 1914 he pursued research at the Zoological Station in Naples, where he studied the chemical processes of respiration in sea urchins.

In 1914, Otto Heinrich Warburg was appointed a Member of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft. After his return from the First World War in 1918, he worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem. Warburg was a founding member and, until 1967, Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology established in 1930 (which became an Institute of the Max Planck Gesellschaft in 1953).

During the years of the Second World War, Warburg, the son of a Jewish father, was temporarily removed from his positions. However, he was spared a worse fate on account of his renown as a Nobel prize winner and for the research work of his institute, which was recognized as being of significance.

He made his most important scientific contributions in the study of the biochemical processes of respiration (the mitochondrial respiratory chain), the photosynthesis of plants and the metabolism of tumors. The “Warburg effect”, which he discovered and named, is still known today in cancer research. It manifests itself in a change in the metabolism of tumor cells: instead of completely burning energy-supplying sugar molecules, tumor cells often break them down only partially, a process known as “fermentation”.

The “Warburg Hypothesis” states that a disturbance of the respiratory enzymes in cells plays a key role in the genesis of cancer. To date, it has been neither proved nor refuted.




The Warburg family
The branched out Warburg family has produced several natural scientists. Otto Heinrich Warburg's father Emil was a well-known physicist and temporarily president of Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (today: Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt ). The Nobel Prize winner is often confused with the botanist and committed Zionist Otto Warburg (1859 - 1938) who has almost the same name. Otto Heinrich Warburg was only distantly related to the latter. It is said that both occasionally got mail that was actually meant for the other one.

The most important thing for young scientists is to be excited about a certain idea or a certain problem. In the end, it's not about getting a good publication, but about solving a problem.

Rudolf Jaenisch Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Bearer of the Otto-Warburg Medal 2014