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Otto Warburg, A Giant of Modern Cellular Biology

Reporter: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Otto Heinrich Warburg

Otto Heinrich Warburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Otto Heinrich Warburg (October 8, 1883 – August 1, 1970), son of physicist Emil Warburg, was a German physiologist, medical doctor and Nobel laureate.

Otto Heinrich Warburg was born on October 8, 1883, in Freiburg, Baden. His father, the physicist Emil Warburg, was President of the Physikalische Reichsanstalt, Wirklicher Geheimer Oberregierungsrat. He was a member of the Warburg family, a prominent family and financial dynasty of German Jewish descent, noted for their varied accomplishments in physicsclassical musicart historypharmacologyphysiologyfinanceprivate equity and philanthropy. They are believed to be descended from the Venetian Jewish del Banco family, in the early 1500s one of the wealthiest Venetian families. The Warburgs fled from Italy to Warburg in Germany in the 16th century before moving to Altona, near Hamburg in the 17th century taking their surname from the city of Warburg. The brothers Moses Marcus Warburg(1763 – 1830) and Gerson Warburg (1765 – 1826) founded the M. M. Warburg & Co. banking company in 1798 that is still in existence.

Otto studied chemistry under the great Emil Fischer, and gained the degree, Doctor of Chemistry (Berlin), in 1906. He then studied under von Krehl and obtained the degree, Doctor of Medicine (Heidelberg), in 1911.

He served as an officer in the elite Uhlan (cavalry regiment) during the First World War, and won the Iron Cross (1st Class) for bravery. Warburg was one of the 20th century’s leading biochemists. [1] He won the Nobel Prize of 1931. In total, he was nominated an unprecedented three times for the Nobel prize for three separate achievements.
While working at the Marine Biological Station, Warburg performed research on oxygen consumption in sea urchin eggs after fertilization, and proved that upon fertilization, the rate of respiration increases by as much as sixfold. His experiments also proved iron is essential for the development of the larval stage.

In 1918, Warburg was appointed professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem (part of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft). By 1931 he was named director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Cell Physiology, which was founded the previous year by a donation of the Rockefeller Foundation to the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft (since renamed the Max Planck Society).
Warburg’s early researches with Fischer were in the polypeptide field.

At Heidelberg he worked on the process of oxidation. His special interest in the investigation of vital processes by physical and chemical methods led to attempts to relate these processes to phenomena of the inorganic world. His methods involved detailed studies on the assimilation of carbon dioxide in plants, the metabolism of tumors, and the chemical constituent of the oxygen transferring respiratory ferment. Warburg was never a teacher, and he has always been grateful for his opportunities to devote his whole time to scientific research. His later researches at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute have led to the discovery that the flavins and the nicotinamide were the active groups of the hydrogen-transferring enzymes.
This, together with the iron-oxygenase discovered earlier, gives a complete account of the oxidations and reductions in the living world. Warburg investigated the metabolism of tumors and the respiration of cells, particularly cancer cells, and in 1931 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for his “discovery of the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme.”[2]

The award came after receiving 46 nominations over a period of nine years beginning in 1923, 13 of which were submitted in 1931, the year he won the prize. This discovery opened up new ways in the fields of cellular metabolism and cellular respiration. He hypothesized, among other things, that cancerous cells can live and develop, even in the absence of oxygen. Warburg also wrote about oxygen’s relationship to the pH of cancer cells’ internal environments, since fermentation was a major metabolic pathway of cancer cells.
Three scientists who worked in Warburg’s lab, including Sir Hans Adolf Krebs, went on to win the Nobel Prize. Among other discoveries, Krebs is credited with the identification of the citric acid cycle (or Szent györgyi-Krebs cycle).
In 1944, Warburg was nominated for a second Nobel Prize in Physiology by Albert Szent-Györgyi, for his work on nicotinamide, the mechanism and enzymes involved in fermentation, and the discovery of flavine (in yellow enzymes). Although he was considered a worthwhile candidate, he was not selected for the prize.


  1.  Krebs, HA (1972), “Warburg Heinrich Warburg. 1883-1970”, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (The Royal Society) 18: 628–699,doi:10.1098/rsbm.1972.0023
  2. ^ NobelPrize.org, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1931accessed April 20, 2007
  3.  Warburg O (1956), “On the origin of cancer cells”, Science 123 (3191): 309–14, doi:10.1126/science.123.3191.309PMID 13298683
  4. a b Kim JW, Dang CV (2006), “Cancer’s molecular sweet tooth and the Warburg effect”, Cancer Res. 66 (18): 8927–30, doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-06-1501PMID 16982728
  5. Som P; Atkins HL; Bandoypadhyay D et al. (1 July 1980), “A fluorinated glucose analog, 2-fluoro-2-deoxy-D-glucose (F-18): nontoxic tracer for rapid tumor detection”, J. Nucl. Med. 21 (7): 670–5, PMID 7391842
  6. Chernow, Ron (1993), The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family, New York, NY: Random House, ISBN 0-679-41823-7

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