Professor Dr Thomas Boehm, Heinrich Wieland Laureate 2021

Professor Dr Thomas Boehm, Heinrich Wieland Laureate 2021 (© Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics/Rockoff)

Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Freiburg, Germany


Thomas Boehm is awarded the 2021 Heinrich Wieland Prize for his ground-breaking contributions to the understanding of the development and evolution of the immune system in vertebrates. Using an impressive spectrum of model organisms, he discovered general design principles of cellular immunity in vertebrates, shifting existing paradigms, and offering entirely new perspectives on adaptive immunity. He identified the transcription factor Foxn1 as an evolutionarily conserved master regulator of epithelial cell differentiation in the thymus, the site of T cell development. He also discovered the long-sought thymus equivalent in jawless vertebrates, resolving a century-old debate about the nature of the immune system in this vertebrate lineage. He reconstructed the evolutionary trajectory of the genetic networks controlling T cell development and recapitulated their step-wise development in vivo. He also discovered an olfactory mechanism by which animals as different as fish and mammals evaluate the composition of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. Thus, MHC peptides not only distinguish self from nonself in the immune system, but also signal genetic relatedness during mate selection, helping to explain why vertebrates maintain a diverse repertoire of MHC genes. Most recently, Thomas Boehm uncovered that deep-sea anglerfishes have switched off key players of their adaptive immunity, such as the RAG genes, which orchestrate antigen receptor assembly. The immunogenetic adaptation in these species enables males to permanently fuse with their much larger female partners, a form of tissue chimaerism that is otherwise unknown in nature. These results demonstrate that co-evolution of innate and adaptive immunity can come to an abrupt end, breaking a central paradigm of evolutionary immunology. The findings also indicate that new forms of innate immunity can evolve to protect vertebrates from infection, with potential relevance for a better understanding of organ transplantation.

Academic Career

Thomas Boehm studied medicine and completed his residency in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1987. He then moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. In 1991, he became professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany, and later accepted a call to the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. Since 1998, he is a Scientific Member and Director at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics. His achievements have been widely recognized: Among others, he received the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for Young Researchers, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the DFG, the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine, the German Immunology Award, as well as two ERC Advanced Grants. He is a member of EMBO, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Academy of Sciences Heidelberg, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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