News+Stories: What motivates you most in your field of work?
Bernd Nidetzky: I’ve had a career-long fascination for enzymes. I often ask myself how enzymes manage to be such fantastic catalysts. By definition, catalysts are substances that influence the speed of a chemical reaction without themselves being consumed. I am trying to understand how they work and at the same time have a great interest in exploring how they can be used for industrial applications. Anyone who, like me, comes from the field of chemistry and is familiar with chemical catalysis is fascinated by how efficiently and well enzymes can sometimes bring about reactions. And the question is: how do they do it? This basic fascination has remained with me since my doctoral thesis, in which I dealt with enzymes. It arises from a joyful occupation with a scientific subject. At some point you find the topic that suits you best – and you follow that up.
Anyone who, like me, comes from the field of chemistry and is familiar with chemical catalysis is fascinated by how efficiently and well enzymes can sometimes bring about reactions
You habilitated at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna, after studying chemistry at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz). Then you took up a professorship at TU Graz. What drew you back to Graz?
Bernd Nidetzky:For someone who wants to become a university professor, an advertised professorship is an important window of opportunity. I was lucky at that time that there was this window at TU Graz. On the other hand, I knew TU Graz from the time of my studies with all the possibilities at the Institute of Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering, where I work today, and in the broadest sense at the Faculty of Technical Chemistry, Process Engineering and Biotechnology. And Graz is – something that many people who come from outside don't know – a fantastic university location and a great city to live in.
You are not only active in research and teaching at Graz University of Technology, as scientific director of the K2 Competence Centre acib you are also concerned with the industrial application of enzymes.
Bernd Nidetzky: As a large K2 competence centre, the Austrian Center of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) is a leading international research company with a network of around 200 partners in the field of industrial biotechnology, and with its very diverse research programme is something like an industrial arm for the university. As scientific director, I have ultimate responsibility for this. I hope that in the future we will be able to use certain enzyme groups that are of interest to us – especially those that work with carbohydrates – to achieve innovations in industry.
The Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) is part of the COMET programme of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG), which promotes the establishment of competence centres. This is where companies and science partners pool and expand their research capacities. TU Graz is the main owner of the acib operating company and Austria's leading university in the COMET programme. Most of Austria's competence centres and K-projects are located in Styria. TU Graz is on board all of them, often as a leading scientific institution. On the website of TU Graz you will find more information about competence centres and research participations of Graz University of Technology.
Which ongoing projects are particularly important to you in the field of industrial biotechnology?
Bernd Nidetzky: Currently, the coordination of the CARBAFIN (Carbohydrate based fine chemicals) research project is taking up most of my time. The EU-funded project aims to produce not only sweets from the sugar components glucose and fructose, but also a wide variety of components for cosmetics, cleaning agents and bioplastics. We scale biotechnological knowledge and methods to an industrial level to test whether the processes are economically viable. Enzymatic processes are also the focus of other promising projects. For example, we have succeeded in developing a new synthesis of the mRNA building block pseudouridine. I am also interested in enzyme action on materials. In the "Cellulosome" project, on the other hand, I am dedicated to the degradation of cellulose by a molecular nanomachine built from enzymes. Another important task for me is the scientific coordination of acib with the aim of making essential contributions to health, climate and resource use through industrial biotechnology.
In the TU Graz news article "Young Skin Thanks to Sugar" you can read more about the research into innovative forms of utilisation of sugar in the EU project CARBAFIN coordinated by Bernd Nidetzky. In the articles "Breaking down stubborn cellulose in time lapse" and "RNA basic building block produced biocatalytically for the first time" you can learn more details about the research work of Bernd Nidetzky and his team.
How do your activities for acib and your research at TU Graz interlock?
Bernd Nidetzky: In my view it's synergistic. I can only see mutual benefits. acib is a competence centre that is strongly integrated into the University. The majority of my company cooperations in university research come from acib. A sharp dividing line is often drawn between basic and applied research. However, a great deal of basic research is also being carried out at acib, albeit with a concrete goal in terms of implementation, which is being introduced by industry. Basic research at the university, which is often planned for the long term, has no concrete goal in the first instance. You try to understand and develop things on a broader level. I wouldn't want to miss either.
In addition to the K2 Competence Centre acib, you also head the Field of Expertise (FoE) "Human & Biotechnology" at TU Graz. What significance do the FoE have for the university?
Bernd Nidetzky: Through the Fields of Expertise, the university itself can make its research areas clearly visible to the outside world. Internally, they offer networking opportunities for researchers beyond the organisational structures of institutes and faculties. They open up another dimension of interdisciplinary cooperation. The research area of biomedical engineering in particular, which at TU Graz stands for human technology, has many points of contact with biotechnology. The "Human & Biotechnology" Field of Expertise makes it possible to work out these internal interconnections more clearly. I see this as a great enrichment.
Given your diverse commitments, what is a good working day for you?
Bernd Nidetzky: I’m happy when I come closer to solving a problem, achieving an immediate goal, or at least having taken a step in the right direction. I try to keep as much time as possible for research.
I’m happy when I come closer to solving a problem, achieving an immediate goal, or at least having taken a step in the right direction.
Where do you get the energy for your fulfilled professional everyday life from?
Bernd Nidetzky: II think I have a high ability to motivate myself and to draw energy. Of course I also do sports, but not as a retreat, but rather as a compensation for sitting. Maybe I sleep enough to have enough energy (laughs).
Does the research, the work itself, give you energy?
Bernd Nidetzky: Absolutely.
After studying technical chemistry at Graz University of Technology, Bernd Nidetzky specialised in biotechnological research in his doctoral thesis. He habilitated in 1999 in the field of biotechnology and enzymology at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna, where he worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Food Technology from 1992 to 2002. Since 2002, he has held the professorship for biotechnology at Graz University of Technology, where he has headed the Institute of Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering since 2004. Since 2013 he has been coordinating the Field of Expertise "Human & Biotechnology", one of five future-oriented areas of Graz University of Technology. Bernd Nidetzky is the scientific director of the Austrian Research Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib). He is the recipient of the Research Award of the Province of Styria and the University Research Award of Industry (Federation of Austrian Industries Styria), among others. In 2022, the renowned journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering awards him the Elmer L. Gaden Award, one of the top international research prizes in biotechnology.