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Three Successful Funding Bids for Collaborative Research Centres

DFG grants Heidelberg University research consortia with more than 40 million euros Heidelberg University succeeded in gaining funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) in the latest approval round for three, internationally visible collaborative research centres. In physics, the collaborative research centre (CRC) studying isolated quantum systems in experimental and theoretical investigations will continue its work in the second funding period (CRC 1225). Funding has also been extended for two research consortia which are organised as transregional CRCs, each with several participating universities: Scientists of the Medical Faculty Heidelberg along with partners in Freiburg and Munich are involved in hepatitis research (CRC/TRR 179). In the molecular life sciences, researchers in Heidelberg and Berlin are investigating the coordination of signal transmission in living cells (CRC/TRR 186). DFG funding for the upcoming four-year period for all three consortia totals more than 40 million euros.

Jürgen Berges | Philip Benjamin

CRC 1225, “Isolated Quantum Systems and Universality in Extreme Conditions” (ISOQUANT), is focused on a field of research of major importance for numerous applications in physics. Many of these systems exhibit characteristic common properties despite fundamental differences in key parameters such as temperature, density, or field strength. To better understand them, the CRC has adopted cross-disciplinary research approaches that go beyond traditional specialisations. In the first funding phase, the researchers in CRC 1225 were able to uncover new relationships between very different physical systems. For example, laboratory experiments with ultracold atoms point to conclusions about the dynamic properties of matter in the early universe shortly after the Big Bang. The results open up new possibilities in quantum simulation, whereby the properties of different systems can be mapped onto a “reference system” that can be studied in the laboratory. “Exploring universal aspects of very different physical quantum systems allows for a broad bandwidth of experimental and theoretical methods to solve overarching issues in physics. Using this interdisciplinary approach, we made important progress in answering fundamental questions and opened up new avenues for continued research that promise an exciting second funding period,” states Prof. Dr Jürgen Berges, spokesperson of the ISOQUANT CRC and researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of Heidelberg University. The DFG is supporting CRC 1225 with approximately 14.3 million euros.

The researchers working in CRC/TRR 179 are studying infections caused by the five medically relevant hepatitis viruses to determine the factors decisive for virus elimination versus chronicity of infection. It is known that the replication strategies of the hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses fundamentally differ, yet infection with either virus can become chronic. How do these viruses overcome the antiviral immune responses and in what way can this knowledge be used for curative treatment? Thus far, research in this area has focused on individual signalling pathways or molecular factors, but did not consider sufficiently the interaction between the infected organ and the antiviral immune response, according to Prof. Dr Ralf Bartenschlager, spokesperson of the transregional CRC “Determinants and Dynamics of Elimination versus Persistence of Hepatitis Virus Infection”. Therefore, by applying an integrative approach, researchers in CRC/TRR 179 are studying these interactions with the aim to develop strategies to overcome chronicity of hepatitis virus infections. “During the first funding period, we already gained important insights into the mechanisms employed by hepatitis viruses to block antiviral immune response and we developed new approaches to treat these infections. Now we are turning our attention to the clinical application of these therapies that will also provide essential clues as to why certain people become chronically ill and others do not. This is of general interest, far beyond hepatitis virus infections,” adds the virologist, who is Director of the Molecular Virology Department at the Centre for Infectious Diseases of Heidelberg University Hospital and speaker of the research programme Infection, Inflammation and Cancer at the German Cancer Research Center. Research partners in the transregional collaborative research centre include the University of Freiburg and the Technical University of Munich. The consortium will receive funding in the amount of approximately 13.8 million euros.

With locations in Heidelberg and Berlin, the work of CRC/TRR 186 in the field of molecular biology focuses on the spatial and temporal coordination of signal transmission processes in living cells that play a pivotal role in the functionality of biological systems. The main goal is to reveal how signals from activated molecular switches are processed in time and space and thereby activate essential cellular processes. Although the molecular mechanisms by which switches are turned on and off are understood in detail, little is known about how activated switches coordinate downstream processes with proper spatial and temporal control. In the initial funding period, the investigators of the consortium used new chemical biological tools and single-molecule studies in intact cells to shed light on a diverse range of essential biological processes such as neurotransmission – the transmission of information between nerve cells – as well as the cellular release of so-called pro-angiogenic signalling molecules. “The successful concept of CRC/TRR 186 will be further expanded during the next four years, adding new biological questions and as yet uninvestigated molecular switches,” explains Prof. Dr Walter Nickel from the Heidelberg University Biochemistry Center (BZH) and spokesperson of the transregional collaborative research centre “Molecular Switches in the Spatio-temporal Control of Cellular Signal Transmission”. To reflect the close ties between the Heidelberg and Berlin research sites within CRC/TRR 186, Prof. Dr Christian Freund (Free University of Berlin) will take over the role as spokesperson midway into the second funding period with Prof. Dr Walter Nickel then acting as co-spokesperson. In the second funding period, CRC/TRR 186 will receive DFG funding in the amount of approximately 13.5 million euros.

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