Actualia (engl.) · Conference Report

Specialized products from plants and microbes – a natural source for biologically active compounds - ECR-meeting

Benjamin Chavez from IPK Gatersleben explains new findings in tropane alkaloid biosynthesis. Photo: Maike Petersen
Sheep and early career scientists – both are friends of natural products. Photo: Maike Petersen

The research of early career scientists (ECR) and their networking were the focus of the conference “Specialized products from plants and microbes – a natural source for biologically active compounds” of DBG’s Natural Products Section. Competently and enthusiastically, the more than twenty participants presented and discussed their research results from the broad field of plant and microbiological compounds. Prof. Dr. Maike Petersen and Prof. Dr. Ute Wittstock summarize topics and research focus of the participants and explain, in which way participants profited from the in-person meeting, which was financially supported by DBG.

After a long break since 2018 due to the Corona pandemic, an in-person-meeting of the Section Plant Natural Products took place again from October 13 to 15, 2023. The motto of the meeting was "Specialized products from plants and microbes – a natural source for biologically active compounds". Haus Bergfried in Bad Endbach (Hessen) provided the perfect setting to make the conference a great success for 23 early career researchers, ranging from prospective Master's students to PostDocs, and three advanced scientists. Many participants – although presently affiliated with German institutions – had an international background, contributing to the stimulating atmosphere and providing interesting perspectives.

The workshop was intended to give the stage only to early career scientists, who also took over the role as chair persons of the four sessions. For some participants it was the first oral presentation given in front of an international auditorium outside of their research groups. From the very beginning, the high quality of the scientific presentations and, above all, the great engagement of the young scientists in discussions were impressive.

Biosynthesis, methods and medicinal value

The wide range of topics included analytical challenges, virtual screening and non-virtual search for drug candidates from plants, as well as the elucidation of biosynthetic pathways. For example, hyperspectral resonance was presented as a method for non-destructive analyses of natural products using spectral data and mathematical models, while other speakers introduced native metabolomics or GC-MS/GC-FID based analytics. The huge potential of natural products as compounds of medicinal use became apparent in three talks centered around virtual screening of existing natural product libraries for ligands binding to important receptors, e.g., µ-opioid receptors, VEGF receptors or G-proteins. However, exploring plants used in traditional medicine, e.g., in Germany, India, Thailand or Kenya, as a treasure chest for compound discovery is still of great importance, as pointed out by several speakers.

New Enzymes and pathways

The main area of interest and research was the biochemical and molecular investigation of new enzymes involved in biosynthetic pathways as for example towards glucosinolates, withanolides, phenylpropanoid esters, gramine, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, tropane alkaloids and chocolate flavonoids. A number of newly detected, long-unknown enzymes was introduced that help to explain how metabolic diversity in specialized metabolism is generated and has evolved since first plants colonized land. Many speakers throughout the four sessions did not only present their results, but also pinpointed scientific challenges and experimental problems – and often enough got good ideas and suggestions from the audience to take home and check out at in the lab.

Occasions to get into contact und to find scientific friends with similar interests were manyfold: during meals and in the evenings, during a walk in the hilly landscape of the “Hinterland” and around a campfire despite rain showers and chilly temperatures outside. A round table discussion was devoted to further development of our Section Plant Natural Products. As a result of the lively discussion, the early career researchers initiated a virtual forum for continuous exchange and accepted the invitation to delegate a representative to the Section’s board.

The meeting brought together scientists with similar interests and love for natural products. Everyone enjoyed face-to-face contact and agreed that this type of meetings should be held also in the future.


Prof. Dr. Maike Petersen, Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie und Biotechnologie, Philipps-Universität Marburg

Prof. Dr. Ute Wittstock, Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie, TU Braunschweig