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14 November 2006

"Our Strong Points Put Us on a Par with the World Leaders"

Initiative for Excellence: An interview with Hans-Georg Kräusslich, coordinator of the Heidelberg "Cellular Networks" Cluster — "A positive spiral into the future"

Professor Kräusslich, you are the coordinator of the cluster of excellence "Cellular Networks", Heidelberg's biggest success in the first round of the Initiative for Excellence competition. In the next five years it will be receiving extra funding of around 36 million euros. What is this research field all about?

Cells are the basic element of any organism. They are made up of a host of interactive components, all collaborating to define the cell's function. In our cluster we are examining the interplay of these components at various different levels. First, there is the individual cell with its interacting constituents and processes. Second, the cell has to communicate with other cells surrounding it. This is of course a more complex issue. At the third level we have the large communicating cellular organisations such as the nervous system. The fourth area addresses the perturbations introduced by other organsims like infectious agents that exploit cellular networks for their own ends. Our overall aim is to achieve a better understanding of these networks.

Which aspects are you concentrating on?

The main focus in the Heidelberg Biosciences lies on the fundamentals of molecular biology and cell biology. The research units involved are renowned University institutions like the Centre for Molecular Biology and the Centre for Biochemistry, as well as major non-university research institutions. The neurosciences are also important in this respect. We further concentrate on infectious agents and developmental biology. On the technical level we shall be focussing on high-resolution microscopy. Another aspect I'd like to emphasise is the cooperation with mathematicians in the field of "Modelling and Simulation". The objective here is to come up with mathematical descriptions of cellular processes. The models developed in this way can then be tested experimentally, thereby achieving incremental feedback between experimental research and mathematics. This interactive process will be promoted by the new Bioquant building.

Will this building be the headquarters for the Cluster?

It will provide the location for the new professors, a number of junior research groups, the technology platform and the Cluster's central offices. All in all, however, the number of institutions involved in the Cluster is far too large for one building.

What do you mean by the term "central technology platform"?

The platform includes the high-resolution light microscopy already referred to and cryo-electron microscopy, which is new to Heidelberg University and is used to study very small structures in a lifelike state.

What use will the extra funding be put to?

We will establish two new W3 professorships, one for cryo-electron microscopy, the other for the sector 'evolution', for example systematic adaptation of protein structures. There will also be six new junior research groups. So the main part of the resources will be spent on personnel.

What other important partners do you have, apart from the ones already mentioned?

Among the non-university institutions our main partners are the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the Max Planck Institute of Medical Research, the German Cancer Research Centre and the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim. Institutes from the University itself will also include the Institute of Hygiene, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Neurosciences and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Scientific Computing.

Over 70 research groups are involved.

The Cluster is designed to optimise their working conditions and promote cooperation to generally strengthen research in the Heidelberg setting. This strategy for the Cluster has been widely approved. It is also worth noting that the Cluster is an open structure:. new participants can be integrated at any time.

What rivals does the Cluster have?

Molecular life sciences are an internationally important sector and all countries with a strong scientific tradition contribute to it. Among german universities, Heidelberg is, like Munich, very definitely up amongst the leaders. The top locations in the world are still to be found in English-speaking countries and even with this extra funding the Cluster does not come close to the financial endowments they have at their disposal. But if we use our resources efficiently, we can be on a par with the leading universities in the world in the fields of our strengths.

Will the life sciences in Heidelberg be strengthened to such an extent that we can expect them to produce a Nobel Prize laureate some time in the future?

The major discoveries required for a Nobel Prize are frequently the result of constellations creating serendipity that can not be planned. In this respect our Cluster is only a small step in the right direction. But overall we will make Heidelberg a more attractive location for the best brains and that means that we start a positive spiral into the future..

One important prerequisite is that the University of Heidelberg achieves elite status.

We will have to commit all our energy and resources to ensuring that this will be the case in the second round.

When will the Heidelberg Cluster start work?

Officially we started on November 1st. We will soon be advertising the new positions and intend to get the new research groups off the ground by the time the Bioquant building opens its doors next year.

Heribert Vogt

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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