He was born 18 July 1948 in Ludwigsburg. After compulsory military service, he studied biochemistry at Tubingen University, working for his final year at Dieter Oesterhelt’s laboratory on ATPase activity of halobacteria.
He later worked on the crystallisation of membrane proteins - essential for their structure elucidation by X-ray crystallography. He received the Nobel Prize jointly with Johann Deisenhofer and Robert Huber in 1988. Together with Michel and Huber, Deisenhofer determined the three-dimensional structure of a protein complex found in certain photosynthetic bacteria. This membrane protein complex, called a photosynthetic reaction center, was known to play a crucial role in initiating a simple type of photosynthesis. Between 1982 and 1985, the three scientists used X-ray crystallography to determine the exact arrangement of the more than 10,000 atoms that make up the protein complex. Their research increased the general understanding of the mechanisms of photosynthesis, revealed similarities between the photosynthetic processes of plants and bacteria and established a methodology for crystallising membrane proteins.
Since 1987 he is director of the Molecular Membrane Biology department at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and professor of biochemistry at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University there.