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The systems of biology

München, 04/19/2016

A new Center devoted to research on Molecular Biosystems is the latest addition to LMU’s HighTechCampus in Grosshadern/Martinsried.

Source: LMU

The new building is located only a short distance from the Gene Center and LMU‘s Chemistry Institutes, and this is no accident. Thematically too, the new Center for Molecular Biosystems (BioSysM), which is about to go into operation, fits perfectly into the array of research institutions located on LMU’s HighTechCampus in Martinsried/Grosshadern. For BioSysM, which will accommodate a staff of 200, brings together the research groups at LMU that focus on systems biology, a relatively young discipline which has considerable potential to transform the fields of the Life Sciences and Medicine. The Martinsried-Grosshadern area is already a highly regarded location for research in the biosciences. Its outstanding infrastructure makes it an ideal setting for interdisciplinary research of a very high caliber.

Molecular biology has entered a new era. Not so long ago, most molecular biologists focused on individual genes and their products, and this strategy has enabled them to gain detailed insights into the mechanisms that underlie many of the essential functions in living cells. With the advent of automated, high-throughput analytical techniques that generates large amounts of data and the development of new computational methods to analyse these data, it is now possible to view complex biological processes as integrated systems: This perspective allows researchers to ask questions such as the following: How are the components of a system connected into functional networks? Which of the elements in these networks are critical for their function and how do they interact with each other? How do such systems react to perturbations? And what types of adaptive and developmental strategies does this organization make available to them? For the first time, researchers are in a position to quantify the components of biological systems at the single-cell level. The ability to identify all the players in biosystems and decipher how they communicate with one another will provide insights into fundamental biological phenomena, and may well pinpoint new targets for the treatment of disease.

Gene regulatory networks
The new Center for Molecular Biosystems Research will house four established labs as well as a group devoted to the development and use of specialized imaging techniques. In addition, four independent junior research groups will complement the scientific portfolio of the Center. Ulrike Gaul, Professor of Organismic Biochemistry and scientific coordinator of the new Center, and her team analyse gene regulatory networks, seeking to understand how they control patterns of gene expression, i.e. the translation of genetic information into proteins, in space and time during organismal development. On the basis of high-resolution, genome-wide measurement of regulatory events, the researchers can construct statistical and mechanistic models that enable them to predict how a regulatory network will react to genetic perturbation.

Veit Hornung, Professor of Immunobiochemistry at LMU since 2015, studies the innate immune system and how it manages to distinguish between constituents of the body’s own tissues and molecules and pathogens that have entered the body from outside. This capacity to differentiate between self and non-self explains why the innate immune system plays such an important role in the recognition of pathogenic bacteria and viruses. However, the system can also trigger deleterious inflammatory reactions, leading to pathologies such as gout, diabetes and atherosclerosis. Both Gaul’s and Hornung’s groups were previously based in the LMU Gene Center, which focuses primarily on structural and biochemical aspects of gene expression and the multi-subunit molecular complexes that mediate the process.

Expertise in Excellence projects
The new Research Center will also provide a new home for Dirk Trauner’s research group. Trauner is Professor of Chemical Biology and Chemical Genetics, and he and his colleagues design and synthesize photo-responsive molecules that can be coupled to specific cell-surface receptors. This enables them to, for instance, control neuronal activity at will with the aid of laser light. The fourth Chair will be devoted to Computational Biology; recruitment for this position is currently under way. The selection process for the four affiliated junior research groups is also ongoing. Finally Don Lamb, Professor of Physical Chemistry, is moving to the new Center with part of his group. Lamb is a specialist for super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, and uses the technology to study the structure and function of large molecular machines and the assembly of virus particles in infected cells.

The new Research Center draws on the expertise of LMU’s Gene Center, the Center for Integrated Protein Science Munich (CIPSM, a Cluster of Excellence) and several DFG Collaborative Research Centers. The Graduate School for Quantitative Biosciences Munich (QBM), which is also funded by the Excellence Initiative, is based in the new building. BioSysM will also act as the central node of the Bavarian Research Network for Molecular Biosystems (BioSysNet) which includes institutions in several locations in Bavaria and is financially supported by the State Government.

Generous zones for communication
The principle of discussion and informal exchange will be reflected in the new building’s very architecture. The different floors are connected, not by a narrow elevator shafts, but by a broad, open stairway, which leads to ample zones of communication. The ground plan of the four-story structure takes the shape of a parallelogram with rounded corners and provides a usable area of 3700 m2. Laboratories dedicated to biochemistry, biophysics, functional genomics and robotics are located on the upper floors. On the ground floor are rooms equipped for conferences and presentations, as well as computer labs. Offices, seminar rooms and communal spaces are arranged on either side of this central block. The building was planned by the Munich architects Fritsch + Tschaidse on the basis of a design by State Construction Office 2.

The total cost of the Center amounted to 29.6 million euros, of which 5.1 million was spent on fittings and instrumentation. Of the latter amount 2.3 million was used to purchase vital equipment, such as state-of-the-art microscopes and robotic instrumentation for biochemical analyses. As a research unit of national significance, as defined by Article 91b of the Federal Constitution, the building was jointly financed by the Federal Government (which contributed 14.3 million) and the State of Bavaria (15.3 million euros, most of which came from the Aufbruch Bayern initiative).