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Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry

Mourning a plant researcher of world renown 

It is with great sorrow that the employees of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB) bid farewell to their longtime companion and former Managing Director, Professor Dierk Scheel. The plant scientist of in­ter­national renown passed away unexpectedly in Halle (Saale) on 18 May 2022. Dierk Scheel managed the 
de­p­artment of Stress and Developmental Biology at the IPB from 1994 to 2019. As Managing Director from 1998 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2007, he contributed greatly to the institute’s scientific reputation. In this function, Professor Scheel was the driving force behind the implementation of visionary ideas and saw to the establishment of new, groundbreaking research technologies that, in the meantime, are recognized far beyond Germany’s borders. 

Dierk Scheel: Scientist with passion. Photo: Andreas Stedtler
Dierk Scheel was born in Celle in 1950. He studied biology and chemistry at the Albert Ludwig University of Frei­burg. After the conferral of his doctorate on the decomposition of pesticides in plants and a research peri­od at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, he took the position of Senior Researcher at the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne in 1983. In 1993, Dierk Scheel habilitated in biochemistry at the Uni­versity of Cologne. He was appointed Professor of Developmental Biology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in 1994. His activities at the IPB as Department Manager and later as Managing
Director commenced at the same time.
Contributions to the institute 
Under Professor Scheel’s leadership, the institute developed an innovative research concept with a new stra­te­gic direction in 2001. Henceforth scientific problems were examined across departments with four themati­cal­ly, methodically and organizationally networked focal points: Natural products, molecular interactions, gene func­tion analysis, and bioinformatics/chemoinformatics. Dierk Scheel established highly modern analysis meth­­ods for small molecules (metabolomics) at the institute during this time, enabling a comprehensive stock-taking of select and unknown plant substances. To evaluate the resulting data, he established the cross-dep­art­ment­al Bioinformatics and Mass Spectrometry research group and technology platform in 2002, which has been oper­ating at the national and international levels with great success ever since.

The Proteomics platform at the IPB for the detection of plant proteins using the high-throughput method was established at his initiative ten years later. Both technology platforms not only advanced the work of his de­part­ment considerably, but were essential game changers for the research strategy and structure of the insti­tute as a whole. Especially in the field of metabolomics, which was not highly developed at the time, the insti­tute has accumulated considerable expertise since then, establishing it as a sought-after cooperation partner on the international stage. 
Support for young scientific talent 
Beyond institutional matters, Professor Scheel dedicated himself to appropriate education for students in these future technologies. He contributed to the founding of the Bioinformatics Center Gatersleben-Halle in co­op­eration with the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Gatersleben and MLU in 2001, and to the introduction of a Bioinformatics postgraduate program at MLU. The corresponding internships took place at the IPB. In 2004 he played a leading role in the founding of weinberg campus e.V., which aims to de­vel­op the Weinberg in Halle as a scientific and business location. 

Dierk Scheel achieved great things for the education and promotion of young scientific talent. A succession of outstanding scientists from his department launched successful careers in science and industry. Four profes­sors emerged directly from his department. Five other professors previously held a position as independent ju­nior research group leaders at the IPB, established in 2007 at the initiative of Dierk Scheel. In 2008, two scien­tists from his department founded the start-up NH-Diagnostics, which has meanwhile established itself suc­cess­fully in the market. A total of 47 diploma candidates, 17 bachelor students and 20 master students were fostered in the Stress and Developmental Biology department since 2001, and 45 doctoral candidates and 2 assistant professors successfully completed their studies. 
Scientific achievements
Under Dierk Scheel’s leadership, a noteworthy circle of experts established itself at the institute with an ex­cel­lent reputation and internationally recognized research results in the field of plant stress resistance. His re­search fo­cused on innate plant immunity – a highly efficient defense strategy of all plant organisms against a broad range of invaders and pathogens. The fact that plants are permanently surrounded by possible patho­gens, yet do not sicken, greatly aroused his scientific curiosity. In cooperation with other scientists, he postu-
l­ated that plants – similar to animals – have an innate immune system that allows them to identify and eradi­cate everything foreign and potentially harmful. This requires a general molecular detection pattern that is found in many microbial pathogens. In animal pathogens, some of these detection patterns known as PAMP
structures (for pathogen-associated molecular pattern) were already known. The search for them in plant pathogens was prolonged. 

Dierk Scheel and his student Thorsten Nürnberger (today a professor at the University of Tübingen) were among the first scientists to discover such a PAMP structure for plant pathogenic bacteria in 1997. With their pub­lication in the renowned Science magazine, the Halle scientists provided important proof of the existence of innate plant immunity. A series of further groundbreaking experiments followed, examining the defense re­ac­tions triggered in the plant by this PAMP structure. The knowledge of defense reactions inside the plant cell
ac­cumulated over the years soon became a model for numerous further innate immunity processes in other plants. His drive produced more than 200 scientific publications. Dierk Scheel was a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and co-publisher of various scientific journals.
Scientific policy involvement
With a great sense of responsibility and also enjoyment, Professor Scheel was involved in numerous important committees, panels and advisory boards for Germany’s scientific policy. He was a member of the Scientific Ad­vi­sory Board of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and represented in the scientific adviso­ry boards of various Max Planck, Helmholtz and Leibniz Institutes. In the German Research Foundation (DFG), he repeatedly and actively contributed his expertise. He was Speaker of the DFG Plant Sciences Review Board and a member of the DFG Senate Committee as well as the DFG Authorizing Committee for Special Research Areas.
Dierk Scheel’s legacy
Science owes Dierk Scheel its in-depth understanding of plant immunity, and Germany received numerous sci­en­tific policy impulses from him. The IPB on the other hand owes him its future. In a time when metabolomics was still in its infancy, Dierk Scheel established this modern technology at the institute and ensured its continu­ous further development through cooperative projects. The strong metabolomics expertise at the IPB will lead to the establishment of the Program Center for Plant Metabolomics and Computational Biochemistry (Meta­Com) in the near future. On this basis, the institute will grow into a reference center for specialized natural prod­­ucts, aimed at a comprehensive understanding of plant resilience. With its considerable know-how and
equip­ment, the IPB is positioned to make a contribution with regard to the leading challenges of the 21st cen­tury, in particular climate change, food security and the health of people and cultivated plants. Realizing these
ambitions will be Dierk Scheel’s legacy.

The employees of the IPB will always remember their former Director as a highly esteemed, sincere and friend­ly col­league with an inestimable store of knowledge and experience, but also stories and anecdotes. His words and advice were always meaningful and welcome. We will miss him in the workings of day-to-day research. Our thoughts are with his family and we extend our deepest sympathy to them.
The funeral service will be held on 17 June 2022 at 11 am in the Gertraudenfriedhof cemetery in Halle. You can extend your condolences at

Prof. Steffen Abel
Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry

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