From Heidelberg to Maine

7 08 2008
A lecture on groundbreaking aspects of high-resolution microscopy by Professor Christoph Cremer of the University of Heidelberg was the foundation stone for intensive contact with the Jackson Laboratory in Maine (USA)
The University of Heidelberg entertains wide-ranging relations with the Jackson Laboratory in the USA, probably best known for the breeding of mice for biomedical research. “Professor Michael Grunze of the Institute of Physical Chemistry was the first to establish contact with the Jackson Laboratory,” recalls Professor Christoph Cremer of Heidelberg’s Kirchhoff Institute of Physics in connection with the beginnings of the fruitful cooperation with the institute in the state of Maine (USA).

In 1999 Michael Grunze had heard a lecture on spectral precision distance/spectral position microscopy (SPDM) by a member of Christoph Cremer’s research group. This specific kind of microscopy enables users of light microscopes to observe even very tiny objects with a magnitude of 10 to 20 nanometres (a nanometre is the millionth part of a millimetre). It is of special interest to biotechnologists because it makes individual molecules visible and enables them to study their individual behaviour in the living cell.

Subsequently Christoph Cremer was invited to give a talk at the Jackson Laboratory and its then director Kenneth Paigen and the vice-president for research and teaching at the Jackson Laboratory, Barbara Knowles, were so enthusiastic about the new microscopy technique that they resolved to integrate it into an institute that was still at the planning stage, the Institute for Molecular Biophysics (IMB).

“Heidelberg ploughed a whole range of ideas into the new institute,” Christoph Cremer reports. Successful proposals put Christoph Cremer and Michael Grunze in a position to provide crucial aid in procuring a high-resolution 4Pi microscope and a 2-photon confocal microscope for the IMB. But high-resolution microscopy was not the only thing that the Heidelberg scientists got on the road. For example, Michael Grunze, himself one of the co-directors of IMB for a while, contributed his research results on the biophysical chemistry of cell surfaces, while Professor Joachim Spatz, also from the Heidelberg Institute of Physical Chemistry, joined in with the outcomes of his investigations on interactions between cell surfaces. In addition, Michael Grunze organised several million dollars for the appointment of young professors to the IMB, which is funded by the Jackson Laboratory and the University of Maine. Since last year the theoretical biophysicist Dieter Heermann of Heidelberg University’s Institute of Theoretical Physics has also been a member of this “global network”.

Ultimately the Institute for Molecular Biophysics at the Jackson Laboratory was officially opened in 2004 and since then there has been close scientific cooperation between the IMB and the University of Heidelberg. Dr. Jörg Bewersdorf, who did his doctorate in Heidelberg, now heads a research group on the development of new microscopy techniques at the IMB, while some of the IMB staff members are working for their degrees and doctorates at the University of Heidelberg. But contact between Maine and Heidelberg is not only maintained via e-mail or telephone. “We have a weekly video conference,” Christoph Cremer explains and goes on to enlarge on the advantages of this form of communication. “Many more people can take part and you can see who you’re talking to. This gives it a whole new dimension over and against a mere telephone conference.” In future it may even be possible to link up the microscope systems to form a “global nanoscope.” Then IMB researchers can use Heidelberg’s super-resolution microscopes directly via the internet and vice versa. The technical preconditions for this development are already in place.

For Heidelberg, other advantages of the cooperation with IMB include the fact that as an “adjunct professor” of the University of Maine’s physics department, Christoph Cremer can make proposals for research funding in the USA, thus greatly enhancing joint research ventures. This, by the way, is a model that Christoph Cremer would dearly like to see instituted in Germany. Then American professors associated with German universities could address such proposals to the German Research Foundation (DFG). “That would be immensely important for a global research network,” Cremer emphasises.
Stephan Zeeh

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Christoph Cremer
Applied Optics & Information Processing
Kirchhoff Institute of Physics
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 227
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/549252 (549271)
fax: 06221/549112

Journalists are invited to address more general inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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