Nobel Prize Prospects for Heidelberg Still Entirely Realistic

8 07 2008
Molecular biology essential for all life sciences – An interview with Thomas Holstein, dean of the University of Heidelberg’s Faculty of Biosciences – One of a series of interviews in the aftermath of the Initiative for Excellence – Faculty of Biosciences increasingly developing into a faculty of Centres
Professor Holstein, what impact have Heidelberg’s successes in the Initiative for Excellence had on the Faculty of Biosciences?

The Initiative has had major repercussions on our Faculty. In conjunction with the Faculty of Medicine and non-university partners (EMBL, the  Max Planck Institutes and the German Cancer Research Centre) we have been able to establish the first Cluster of Excellence at the University of Heidelberg. In this cluster called “Cellular Networks”, 15 of the 21 principal investigators are full or co-opted members of our Faculty. In addition, and again in cooperation with the Faculty of Medicine, we were successful with our proposal for the “Hartmut Hoffmann-Berling International Graduate School for Molecular and Cell Biology” (HBIGS). We were also crucially involved in two projects featured in the Institutional Strategy of the University, the strategic alliance between the Centre for Molecular Biology (ZMBH) and the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) and the amalgamation of the Heidelberg Molecular Life Sciences (HMLS), an integrative structure encompassing all the life sciences located in Heidelberg, including non-university institutions. This is unique in Germany.

What are the important research fields?

They centre on molecular biology, which today permeates all the life sciences. In Heidelberg pioneering work has been done in this sector. At present the spectrum is broad, ranging from basic research to biotechnology. Alongside the more traditional subjects (botany, microbiology, pharmacy, zoology) our profile is geared primarily to superordinate research fields such as structural biology, cell biology, developmental and evolutionary biology, neurobiology, physiology, ecology, systems biology and biotechnology.

What part does the new Bioquant building play in all this?

For the first time, Bioquant has made it possible to combine mathematical and computational biology with more traditional issues in that field. Also, new technology platforms have been set up for things like structural biology (e.g. cryo-electronic microscopy) and high-resolution cell microscopy. Living systems produce vast amounts of data used for modelling. Accordingly, Bioquant is also important for systems biology in Heidelberg, which uses the enormous technological potential housed there to analyse molecular processes in the systemic context.

How many professors does the Faculty have and what institutions belong to it?

We have 36 professors, 22 of them active in the three traditional institutes of botany, zoology and pharmacology plus molecular biotechnology (IPMB). The other 14 professors work in central institutions of the University of Heidelberg like the Centre for Molecular Biology (ZMBH) or the Centre for Biochemistry (BZH). Then there are 20 further co-opted professors from other Faculties, a fact that highlights the interdisciplinary nature of the biosciences. This is also reflected in the formation of various Centres, within which the ZMBH is remarkable for its department structure.

How will this development continue?

We intend to continue with it systematically. At present, two new Centres are in the planning stage, one is the COS (Centre of Organismic Structures from Molecular to Living Systems) in partnership with EMBL, the other is a system of Centres in the field of pharmacy. All these Centres are rooted in the Faculties but they entertain research networks with other Faculties, thus making joint use of the highly modern infrastructure and generating very considerable potential. Here we see the Faculty of Biosciences developing in the direction of a faculty of Centres.

How do these changes affect teaching?

One of the tasks facing the Faculty is to organise teaching efficiently. The new structure will also be attractive for students. We already offer three Bachelor courses (biology, molecular biotechnology, pharmacy), plus ongoing Master courses with opportunities to specialise in a range of different majors.

The previous Faculties of Biology and Pharmacy merged in 2002. Has this fusion proved successful?

Yes, it has. Molecular biotechnology is now one of the central mainstays of our Faculty. In the course of Centre formation, the integration of our colleagues from pharmacology represents a bridgehead to the Faculty of Medicine.

What significance do you attribute to the plant and animal world?

Preservation of the diversity of plant and animal species is an issue with a major bearing on the future of humankind. But biotechnological progress also enables us to break new ground. Genome sequencing, for example, provides the first mechanistic answers to issues in evolutionary biology that touch on the very core of our origins. This is one of the reasons why our colleagues in botany and zoology are establishing the COS with a view to finding answers to these questions and many others.

Where is there more of a focus on the human animal?

Particularly relevant in this connection is the stem-cell research we are conducting in conjunction with Heidelberg’s medical scientists. There are also new initiatives in the neurosciences enabling us to decipher the functioning of our nervous system with systems-biological and computer-assisted methods.

What other developments are taking shape?

In cellular and molecular biology we want to understand how protein structures function in the cellular context. To this end structural biology will be strengthened. In the cluster of excellence “Cellular Networks” two new professorships have been established, one for protein evolution, the other for cryo-electron microscopy. Understanding protein interaction is essential in getting to grips with tumour genesis. Other topics in the future will be developmental and stem-cell biology, neurobiology and the systems biology of organisms and their neural systems.

How do you assess the relative position of Heidelberg’s biosciences at this point in time?

As the successes in the Initiative for Excellence indicate, we are very well placed, but of course there’s always room for improvement. One essential factor in future will be the ability to make professorial job offers that are competitive both nationally and internationally. Our main rivals here are Munich and Cologne, plus renowned European and American universities. Another important issue is finding a common venue for biology on the Neuenheimer Feld campus in the form of a major bio-centre.

The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth is coming up on 12 February 2009. Is the founder of evolution theory still the great key figure in biology?

Darwin changed our view of the world. But we can only really appreciate the scope of his discoveries with our molecular-biological knowledge about the identity of the genomes of the various organisms. Soon it will be possible to understand the evolution of organisms in mechanistic terms. Accordingly, we intend to mark the undimmed actuality of this topic by ushering in the Darwin Year 2009 with the foundation of COS and the organisation of an international symposium.

Which Heidelberg researchers have been especially important in your field?

In the field of the biosciences we have five Nobel Prize laureates to our name, Albrecht Kossel, Otto Meyerhof, Richard Kuhn, Georg Wittig and the neurobiologist Bert Sakmann. The prospects of members of our cluster of excellence winning a Nobel Prize are still realistic.
Heribert Vogt
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