Growing up on West Berlin, Germany, Peter Walter spent numerous hours in his father’s chemist shop, a drugstore where herbal medicines, chemicals and various household items were sold. This exposure—along with his own dabbling in the pyrotechnical adventures of mixing and igniting chemicals—fostered Walter’s early interest in science. By age 12, he knew he wanted to be a chemist.
Walter began his study of chemistry in 1973 at the Free University of Berlin. Three years into the program, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he joined the chemistry department at Vanderbilt University as an international exchange student. Working in the laboratory of Tom Harris on the biosynthetic pathway of a fungal alkaloid, he quickly discovered that American universities offered even young students cutting-edge hands-on research experiences and fostered their early development as independent researchers. Walter became hooked on this style of learning. He graduated a year later from Vanderbilt University with a Master of Science degree in organic chemistry.
Walter went to the Rockefeller University in New York, where from 1977 to 1981 he undertook doctoral study with Günter Blobel. Walter switched his field of study from chemistry to cell biology, as he became fascinated by the complexities that govern the inner workings of living cells. During his graduate work, he discovered the signal recognition particle, a universally conserved component that enables proteins to become properly localized in cells. He remained in Blobel’s group for two additional years, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as assistant professor.
In 1983, Walter joined the faculty of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where he moved up through the ranks and served as Department Chair from 2001 until 2008.
In his laboratory at UCSF, Walter turned his attention to deciphering the pathways that cells use to regulate the abundance of their internal organelles. With a particular focus on the endoplasmic reticulum, the organelle in which many newly made proteins are assembled, his lab uncovered the “unfolded protein response”, a complex cell-internal signaling network that adjust the cell’s protein folding capacity to demand. Regulating the abundance of the endoplasmic reticulum is a fundamental process for all eukaryotic cells, and it is a key determinant for any number of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Most disease connections arise because the cell is programmed to die, rather than putting defective and potentially harmful proteins on its surface. His lab has identified the genes that are centrally involved in the unfolded protein response and deciphered their function in this crucial cell-internal communication pathway.
Since 1997, Walter has been an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is the 2016 President of the American Society of Cell Biology and an elected member of several prestigious scientific societies such as the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the American Association for Arts and Science, and the European Molecular Biology Organization. He is a co-author of the textbooks Molecular Biology of the Cell and Essential Cell Biology, two of the world’s most widely used standard works in the field of molecular cell biology. Among the many awards he has received are the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry, the Passano Award, the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the Stein & Moore Award from the Protein Society, the Gairdner Award, the E.B. Wilson Medal from the American Society of Cell Biology, the Otto Warburg Medal from the German Biochemical Society, the Jung Prize, and the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, the Shaw Prize, the Lasker Award, the Vilcek Prize and the Breakthrough Prize.
Walter, a strong advocate of the value of basic, curiosity-driven research to society, describes his career as “Walking Along the Serendipitous Path of Discovery” and goes on to say “Personally, I would consider it a crowning highlight of my career if some aspects of the basic knowledge that we have accumulated over the years are translated into a tangible benefit for mankind. Yet importantly, none of the tremendous opportunities that we now hold in our hands were obvious when we started on our journey; they only emerged gradually as we playfully and fervently followed the turns of our meandering and serendipitous path.”