The MPI of Biochemistry is an internationally leading institute in protein research
Proteins are the building blocks of life and have important key functions: The Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Biochemistry is dedicated to these impressive macromolecules and works on important fields of science leading the way to new therapies for diseases.
It is the nucleus of the Science Campus Martinsried: Today’s MPI of Biochemistry has existed since 1973 and was created through the merger of the original Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, the Max Planck Institute of Protein and Leather Research and the Max Planck Institute of Cell Chemistry. The newly founded institute did not remain alone for long: the MPI of Neurobiology also settled in the immediate neighbourhood. Today, the two research institutions are closely linked. The institute currently has 800 employees with an annual budget of 65 million euro. There are about 20 research groups and nine research departments. 400 scientists from 45 countries are investigating the structure and function of proteins, individual molecules, as well as complex organisms. They try to understand for example the rules by which cells divide, specialize and perform their tasks in the body. With these research priorities, the Institute is an international leader in protein research.
The Executive Board of the MPI of Biochemistry consists of a Managing Director and two deputies. Prof. Dr. Reinhard Fässler has led the institute since 2019. He deals with integrins, so-called anchor proteins, which play an essential role in cell division, cell migration and blood coagulation. Prof. Fässler gave the editorial team of the IZB in Dialog a deep insight into his research group and the activities of the MPI of Biochemistry.
© Ben Engel, Miroslava Schaffer | biochem.mpg.de/baumeister
Cells have an internal cargo delivery system for transporting proteins to different cellular locations. The Golgi is the center of this system. Its stacks of membranes (green, pink, blue) sort proteins into vesicles (light green, light pink, light blue) for transport throughout the cell. The native Golgi structure was reconstructed in 3D by imaging frozen algae cells from different angles with an electron microscope.
IN DIALOG: Since its foundation, the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry has not only undergone structural changes, but its research priorities have also shifted. Today, the main focus is on biochemistry, cell and structural biology, biophysics and molecular medicine. What are your goals as Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry?
Prof. Fässler: The position of the managing director changes annually in our Institute. As one of the seven directors, I have assumed these responsibilities for 2019. I use this time to provide targeted impulses. It is particularly important to me that the vacant director positions are quickly filled with top researchers.
IN DIALOG: How closely are the research groups in your institute interlinked and, if so, what are the advantages?
Prof. Fässler: As one of the largest Max Planck Institutes in the biological-medical section of the Max Planck Society, we have gathered a large number of competencies with currently seven directors and the associated departments. In addition, there are the independent research groups. Depending on the project, the scientists work closely together. The short distances within the institute, but also to other institutes on the campus, are an outstanding location advantage because they often speed up the answering of various research questions.
IN DIALOG: You studied medicine and are now the Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. How did you come to embark on a scientific career?
Prof. Fässler: Already during my medical studies, I was interested in the basic mechanisms of diseases. In the following years I worked as medical doctor for several years and saw many patients who could not be helped. I wanted to understand the pathological mechanisms in order to open the door to new therapies. This led me directly to basic research.
Prof. Dr. Reinhard Fässler
Director of the Department “Molecular Medicine”
Research on a cell anchor whose activity is tightly regulated: Prof. Dr. Reinhard Fässler and his research department deal with integrins. These are anchor proteins, which are localized in the cell membrane and link the extracellular environment with the (actin) cytoskeleton. Integrins play an essential role in many important processes such as cell migration, cell division or blood clotting. Prof. Fässler investigates how integrins execute these different functions and what happens when integrins no longer perform their functions. To elucidate the integrin functions and effects, the researchers switch off the corresponding genes, or engineer point mutations to abrogate specific sub-functions. Prof. Fässler is a medical doctor and since 2001 director of the Department of Molecular Medicine.
IN DIALOG: You are a top researcher in your field. At which universities do you additionally teach? What topics do you teach there?
Prof. Fässler: In addition to my work as Director and Head of the Department “Molecular Medicine” at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, I am an Honorary Professor at the LMU Munich and since a few years at the University of Hong Kong. Through lectures and seminars, I am in close contact with researchers and students. The main topics of the lectures deal with questions of cell interactions and their complex mechanisms of action and regulation.
IN DIALOG: Unraveling the fundamental mechanisms by which integrins coordinate and control their complex signaling network brings hope for new treatment options for diseases caused by a malfunction of integrins. Which diseases are these, for example, and what is the current state of your research?
Prof. Fässler: Integrins mediate cell attachment and communicate with their environment. Both are fundamental processes in multicellular, complex organisms. Integrins play a role in almost all biological processes, particularly cell division, cell migration, blood clotting and immune defense. In recent years, we have been able to clarify a large number of molecular mechanisms. Integrins have the fascinating ability to recognize the biophysical properties of the cell environment, for example the strength of the tissue, and to convert the “physical” information into a biochemical signal. The consequences are very delicately tuned reactions, such as a change in cell division rate, improved tissue invasion, better cell viability, etc. This type of signal transduction is known as “mechanotransduction” and plays an important role in tumors, which are almost always solid and therefore easily palpable, excessive scarring and inflammatory processes.