Prof. Sackmann dedicated a lifetime of research towards probing the living cell with tools of physics, long before biophysics was the mode of the day. Considered by many the father of biophysics in Europe, he pioneered, along with others, the idea of a “bottom up” approach towards understanding the cell – starting from relatively simple systems like lipid bilayers, giant vesicles and actin in solution and going towards more and more complex systems to reach eventually an understanding at the level of the entire cell.
More than 200 publications and several books Literatur von und über Erich Sackmann testify to his contributions to soft matter and biophysics. His early work was mainly on lyotropic liquid crystals and lipid membranes. Later, along with his students he laid the foundations of our current understanding of membrane adhesion. Over the years, his team developed and improved the technique of reflection interference contrast microscopy - RICM, (which is quantitative interference reflection microscopy - IRM) – a powerful tool to probe adhesion of membranes and thin films. Collaborations with theoreticians like Reinhard Lipowsky, Udo Seifert and Robijn Bruinsma have led to seminal works on adhesion of cell mimetic giant vesicles (also called liposomes).
Another of his interests is the cytoskeleton and its dynamics. To study cytoskeletal dynamics, his team developed magnetic tweezers capable of exerting very small pulling forces. He has contributed to our understanding of the dynamics of single actin filaments, actin networks as well as intact living cells.
His research interests include: physics of self assembly and function of artificial and biological membranes, viscoelastic microscopy of cells, physics of the actin based cytoskeleton: micro-rheology of macromolecular networks, applications of solid-supported lipid-protein membranes, ultrathin hydrated polymer layers and polymer/membrane composite films and neutron Reflectivity as a new tool to study the self assembly of membrane associated proteins.
Along with Reinhard Lipowsky, he has authored "the Structure and Dynamics of Membranes". Recently, along with Rudolf Merkel, he has published "Lehrbuch der Biophysik" - a text book on biophysics aimed at students and reaserchers.
In recognition of his research work, in 2006, he was awarded the Stern-Gerlach-Medal (Stern-Gerlach-Medaille) by the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG, German Physical Society).