Max Birnstiel

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Max L. Birnstiel
Max Birnstiel in approximately 1990
Born(1933-07-12)12 July 1933
Died15 November 2014(2014-11-15) (aged 81)
Wollerau, Switzerland
Alma materETH Zurich
Known forStudy of eukaryotic gene regulation
Scientific career
FieldsMolecular biology
Doctoral advisorAlbert Frey-Wyssling
Notable students

Max Luciano Birnstiel (12 July 1933 – 15 November 2014) was a Swiss molecular biologist who held a number of positions in scientific leadership in Europe, including the chair of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Zurich from 1972–86, and that of founding director of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna from 1986 to 1996.[1] His research focused on gene regulation in eukaryotes. His research group is sometimes cited as the first to purify single genes, the ribosomal RNA genes from Xenopus laevis, three years before the successful isolation of the lac operon.[2] He is also recognized for one of the earliest discoveries of a gene enhancer element.[3] Birnstiel died in 2014 of heart failure during cancer treatment.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Birnstiel was born in Brazil in 1933; his father, also Max Birnstiel, was Swiss and his mother, Dalila Varella, was Brazilian. The family moved to Switzerland when the younger Max was five years old, and he was educated in Zurich. He received his Ph.D. in botany in 1959 from ETH Zurich under the supervision of Albert Frey-Wyssling and then became a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology with James Bonner.[1][3]

Academic career[edit]

In 1963, Birnstiel was recruited by Conrad Waddington to a faculty position in the genetics department at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained until 1972, advancing to the rank of professor. His work at Edinburgh included studying the physical properties of genes, leading to the successful purification of ribosomal RNA genes from Xenopus laevis; this body of work was performed with Ph.D. students Adrian Bird, Michael Grunstein, and Hugh Wallace and led to further study of gene structure in collaboration with Donald Brown. The work has been cited as the first purification of single genes, announced at a meeting in 1965[4]: 15  three years prior to the isolation of the bacterial lac operon,[2] and is noted as a key piece of evidence in establishing the chemical nature of the gene.[4]: 15 

Returning to Switzerland, Birnstiel accepted a chair position at the then-new Institute of Molecular Biology II at the University of Zurich in 1972 – the planned IMB being split into two separate institutes to accommodate both Birnstiel and Charles Weissmann as molecular biology chairs.[3] Zurich was the site of his work on purification of histone genes, which led to one of the first discoveries of an enhancer element which he termed the "Modulator".[3][2]

Birnstiel was sought out as a candidate for the directorship of a then-new privately funded institute to be founded in Vienna – not then well regarded as a research hub – with funding from Boehringer Ingelheim and Genentech. In 1986, Birnstiel became the founding director of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), which under his leadership became a major center for life sciences research and the biotechnology industry.[3][2][5] Birnstiel served as director at the IMP until 1996, when he retired and was succeeded by Kim Nasmyth.[1][3]

Birnstiel also held positions of service to the broader scientific community as the Chairman of the EMBO Council and editor-in-chief of EMBO Journal from 1983–90.[1]

In 1998, he and colleagues from IMP founded Intercell AG, a spin-off company.[6] In 2013 Intercell merged with another European biotech, Vivalis, to create a successor company Valneva that focuses on vaccine development.[7]

Awards and honors[edit]

Birnstiel received numerous awards for his scientific achievements and was regarded in the 1980s as a major figure in the Swiss scientific community.[1][3]

Personal life[edit]

During his postdoctoral fellowship in the U.S., Birnstiel met and developed a collaboration with a British biologist, Margaret Chipchase, whom he married in 1961 and had two children with - Marcus and Kirsty Birnstiel.

He died in 2014 at age 81, of heart failure following radiation therapy for inoperable cancer.[3][5] Birnstiel was remembered for his love of food and wine and enthusiasm for travel.[2][3]


In 2017, the Max Birnstiel Foundation was created to promote training and career development of young researchers in the field of molecular life sciences.[8] In 2019, the Max Birnstiel Foundation and the IMP established the Birnstiel Award for Doctoral Research in Molecular Life Sciences,[9] which was presented for the first time in autumn 2019.


  1. ^ a b c d e "CV, Max Birnstiel". Institute of Molecular Life Sciences. University of Zurich. Retrieved 6 October 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e Grunstein, Michael; Bird, Adrian (13 January 2015). "Max Birnstiel 1933–2014: Gene pioneer". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112 (2): 302–303. Bibcode:2015PNAS..112..302G. doi:10.1073/pnas.1423755112. PMC 4299252. PMID 25556180.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Schatz, Gottfried (January 2015). "Max L. Birnstiel (1933–2014)". Cell. 160 (1–2): 11–12. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.12.030.
  4. ^ a b Gehring, Walter J. (1998). Master control genes in development and evolution : the homeobox story. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. ISBN 9780300074093.
  5. ^ a b "Max L. Birnstiel 1933–2014". The Research Institute of Molecular Biology (IMP). Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  6. ^ "History". The Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP). Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  7. ^ "About Valneva". Valneva. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  8. ^ "Max Birnstiel Foundation".
  9. ^ "Birnstiel Award | Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP)".

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