Robert Koch Gold Medal 2017
Christopher T. Walsh is one of the fathers of chemical biology, a new discipline at the intersection of chemistry, biology and medicine. With over 800 publications, Walsh, who specialized in enzymatic responses at an early stage, made a key contribution to deciphering the chemistry of life. His studies on how antibiotics work and the mo-lecular mechanisms of antibiotics resistance were ground-breaking. Even in the early 90s, Walsh succeeded in proving the enterococci only need to change one enzyme from their cell wall (D-Ala-D-Ala ligase) slightly to decrease the effectiveness of the antibiotic Vancomycin thousandfold.
In a personal retrospective of his eventful research career, Walsh recently admitted that the results of his work also had medical consequences, for example when finding new antibiotics or immune modulators, always gave him great satisfaction.* His studies on blocking enzymatic reactions via inhibitors (suicide substrates) or on the production of selective iron-ion binding “siderophores” by enterobacteria were pioneering. Finally, Walsh focused intensively on the general rules of biosynthesis of natural substances, including a wide range of pharmacologically effective substances. In this way, Walsh gave colleagues from a wide range of disciplines the tools they needed for their own work. Even decades later, this outstanding researcher can still marvel at the “breathtakingly simple logic” with which hundreds of thousands of structurally and functionally different molecules are combined from simple chemical basic building blocks. Following Nobel Physics Laureate Frank Wilczek, Walsh calls this the “beauty in the heart of nature”.