ResearchNew Center for Synthetic Genomics

Press Release No. 22/2024
5 March 2024

Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung finances establishment of joint facility in Heidelberg, Karlsruhe and Mainz

Applying and developing new technologies for DNA synthesis to pave the way for producing entire artificial genomes – that is the goal of a new interdisciplinary centre starting up at Heidelberg University, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. The Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung (CZS) is financing the establishment of the Center for Synthetic Genomics over a period of six years with a total amount of twelve million euros. The aim is to spark new developments in synthetic genomics there, through basic research and technology development using methods from artificial intelligence. Eventually it should be possible to design and synthesise long DNA sequences for applications in research, nanomaterials science or medicine. The first spokesperson of the new centre is systems biologist Prof. Dr Michael Knop, deputy director of the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University (ZMBH).

While the past two decades of genome research were marked by the development of new genome sequencing techniques, it will become possible in future to modify genomes more quickly and easily, or even to create entirely new genomes, using innovative methods of DNA synthesis and genome assembly. This is the vision that the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung Center for Synthetic Genomics Heidelberg – Karlsruhe – Mainz (CZS Center SynGen) will pursue in the coming years. The researchers from the three universities want to design synthetic DNA sequences with the aid of AI-based methods of analysis and modelling, in order to make targeted changes in the genome of organisms and give it new functionalities. The aim is to extract from them what are called biologics, that is, products manufactured by biotechnology methods. These are eventually to be used to produce bio-based medicines, gene therapies for diseases and biofuels, or to drive research into novel materials.

“At the CZS Centers we combine expertise across locations and disciplines. The life sciences, in particular, require a high degree of interdisciplinary collaboration. CZS Center SynGen aims to advance the production of synthetic DNA and unfold its immense potential for research, medicine and beyond,” says Dr Felix Streiter, managing director of the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung, explaining its motivation for funding the second CZS Center in Germany.

“Synthetic genomics is a young but rapidly growing research area globally, with transfer potential for different socially relevant challenges. In our new centre we will pool the complementary expertise of the three strong research universities at Heidelberg, Karlsruhe and Mainz in the life sciences, molecular systems engineering and biomedical research. That way, we intend to coordinate all the steps in synthetic genomics, from design and production right up to the application of synthetic genetic materials and organisms,” says Center spokesperson Michael Knop. The other members of the three-person management committee of the CZS Center SynGen are molecular biologist Prof. Dr Sylvia Erhardt from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and biophysical chemist Prof. Dr Edward Lemke from Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.

The Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung Center for Synthetic Genomics Heidelberg – Karlsruhe – Mainz started work in January 2024. Researchers collaborating at the three locations represent different disciplines, including biology, biochemistry, biophysics, biotechnology, synthetic biology and bioengineering, as well as philosophy and law, genomics, immunology, epigenetics, virology and data science. In addition, more international experts and early-career researchers are to be recruited to work at the new centre. A competence centre for the synthesis of synthetic DNA is likewise to be set up in Heidelberg, the CZS Center Synthetic DNA Accelerator Lab. Also involved in the CZS Center SynGen are scientists from the German Cancer Research Center and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies, as well as external partners from academia and business.

The CZS Center SynGen was officially opened at a ceremony held at Heidelberg University on 4 March 2024. It was attended by the lead scientists as well as representatives of the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung and the participating universities.

About the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung

The Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung’s mission is to create an open environment for scientific breakthroughs. As a partner of excellence in science, it supports basic research as well as applied sciences in the STEM subject areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Founded in 1889 by the physicist and mathematician Ernst Abbe, the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung is one of the oldest and biggest private science funding institutions in Germany. It is the sole owner of Carl Zeiss AG and SCHOTT AG. Its projects are financed from the dividend distributions of the two foundation companies.

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    The management committee of the CZS Centre SynGen (from left to right): centre spokesperson Michael Knop (Heidelberg University), Edward Lemke (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz) and Sylvia Erhardt (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology).
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    Gathered for the opening at Heidelberg University: the scientific management committee of the CZS Center SynGen, represented by Michael Knop (right), Sylvia Erhardt (third from left) and Edward Lemke (left), as well as Phil-Alan Gärtig as representative of the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung (centre) and Andreas Dreuw (second from right), Stefan Müller-Stach (third from right) and Martin Bastmeyer (second from left) as representatives of the participating universities.
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    Welcomed the “triad” of universities involved in the new research centre at the official opening of the CZS Center SynGen on 4 March 2024 in Heidelberg: Andreas Dreuw, Vice-Rector for Research and Digitalisation at Heidelberg University. He also conveyed the greetings and congratulations of Rector Frauke Melchior.
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    Emphasised the importance of university partnerships: Stefan Müller-Stach, Vice President for Research and Early Career Academics at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, also spoke at the opening of the CZS Center SynGen.
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    “Giving something back” to the universities: Phil-Alan Gärtig spoke about the Carl-Zeiss-Stiftung’s goal of creating an open environment for scientific breakthroughs. He was there on behalf of the foundation’s Managing Director, Felix Streiter, who was unable to attend the opening event of the CZS Center SynGen.
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    “Writing the code of life”: in his lecture, systems biologist Michael Knop from the Center for Molecular Biology of Heidelberg University spoke about the past and present of genome research. The spokesperson of the new centre also gave an outlook on the possibilities of synthetic genomics.
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    The keynote lecture on “Rewriting Life’s Code: The Convergence of Genome Regulation and Synthetic Genomics” was delivered by Eileen Furlong, Head of the Genome Biology Unit at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.