Successful signalling science in Freiburg
Biological signaling processes form the basis for the regulation of every cell in an organism. For the past ten years, the Cluster of Excellence BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies at the University of Freiburg has brought together scientists from biology, medicine, chemistry and technology with one goal in mind: to better understand biological signaling processes. What has the cluster achieved? What’s next? To find this out Nicolas Scherger sat down for a chat with BIOSS spokesperson Prof. Dr. Michael Reth.
Mr. Reth, what winning concept did BIOSS use in the competition for excellence?
Michael Reth: At the beginning of 2000, I had reached a point in my research where something new needed to happen. Biology then worked primarily in an analytical fashion: using knock-out techniques, genes are deleted in order to then see what no longer works. I thought, however, that there must be another way to better understand cellular processes: that of synthesis. We then put together cell signal systems on a small scale and saw that you can learn a lot about the signaling mechanism that way. When the University was in danger of losing the competition for excellence in 2007, I brought this experience to the BIOSS cluster application. The central research concept was to move from analysis to synthesis in biological signaling studies, thereby using the latest techniques in synthetic biology. Taking a synthetic approach in biomedical research wasn’t on anyone’s radar in Germany at that time.
How did you experience the time of the cluster’s founding?
A cluster was something new and raised a lot of excitement. But its implementation was the hard part at first. The money came quickly after our successful application, but we had neither an office nor a building. I was fortunate to be able to build a committed BIOSS office team. We benefited from the State of Baden-Württemberg’s bridge program in reaction to the economical and financial crisis in 2008 when all new constructions were stopped. Plans for a new building were developed shortly thereafter and in 2011 we were able to move into the Signalhaus Freiburg.
What was the greatest challenge?
A cluster of excellence is not just about research funding, but also about staff development. The greatest challenge was finding the right people for our project and attracting them to Freiburg. We had to advertise the positions, negotiate with faculties because professorships had to be part of faculties, and set up new labs. The BIOSS office team was a tremendous help with all that – and we were able to hire very good people at BIOSS.
What role did gender play in the job appointments?
The excellence initiative is also meant to address common issues around personnel structures in German universities. When I was appointed as professor in Freiburg, there were hardly any women scientists in my faculty in any kind of leadership role. In its application BIOSS promised to fill the open positions in a gender neutral way and a lot of people told us “You’ll never be able to do that.” And guess what? We did it. In both funding rounds we have filled four professorships each round, both times with two female researchers each. Furthermore, we are supporting a young female group leader and, since 2010, have awarded the Barbara Hobom Prize to successful female doctoral students.
Do you have other examples of promoting young talent?
During the first round, we supported four independent postdocs as well as five junior group leaders of whom several have already received professorships. In addition, we support every year a student team that participates in the competition “International Genetically Engineered Machine” (iGEM for short) with a synthetic biology project. In November 2017 another BIOSS student team will travel to the US and present its project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
You have also build the so-called toolbox.
Every university has a well-ordered library with a ton of books that you can read at any time. The material that is manufactured by molecular or synthetic biology, on the other hand, is typically in a state of disarray and kept in various freezers. The BIOSS toolbox is intended to validate the material and store it in such a way that all researchers can have access to it, much like a library does with its books.
All of that was established after five years. What did you experience in the second funding phase?
You would think, well, we have built the foundation so everything should be a lot easier now, right? The fact is the second phase was more difficult. There weren’t as many openings in the faculties and after the first round of the excellence initiative, a lot of people had already been appointed in Germany. It was therefore harder to find the right people. I am happy that we were able to bring very good scientists to Freiburg for the BIOSS team, but it took a bit longer than expected. Besides, for a long time it was unclear what would happen after the second application phase, making appointments that much harder. But now it is clear: The competition is continuing and the initiative CIBSS – Centre for Integrative Biological Signalling Studies that builds on BIOSS is in its final round.
At which point did you have the feeling the research could truly begin?
Only toward the end of the second funding phase. In 2017 we have filled the last BIOSS professorships and now I can dedicate most of my time with my research. We are now dealing with the implementation of the BIOSS nanoscale Explorer Program, BiNEP for short, of the BIOSS 2 application. We have shown that all receptors on immune cells exist in an orderly fashion in functional protein clusters at the nanometer scale. We want to find out how this order is generated.
Research consortia of this magnitude had never existed at universities before the competition of excellence. In your opinion, what is the added value that such clusters bring?
Clusters of excellence should make a university’s strengths more visible and contribute to building its reputation. Existing research should be supported in a sustainable way and further developed. In this way, new research approaches, such as what BIOSS has done with signaling research, can be established at a university. In addition, a cluster can bring together scientists from various faculties and thereby promote more cooperation inside the university. With its biological signaling studies BIOSS has built important bridges amongst the faculties.
Amongst which disciplines?
In Freiburg the connection between biology and medicine has always been strong, as you see with the numerous collaborative grants. BIOSS has strengthened that connection, while building bridges to the faculties of technology, physics and chemistry.
Which conclusions can you draw after ten years?
BIOSS is a very successful cluster. With our strategy from analysis to synthesis to a better analysis we have shown that you can make important new discoveries in signaling research – and the BIOSS team has about 220 publications in this area every year. The CIBSS application can build on our success while giving research a new direction.