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From Sheet Metal Elements to Host Cells: DFG Launches Ten New Collaborative Research Centres

On 1 January 2009 the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) will launch ten new Collaborative Research Centres. They will be initially funded for the next four years with a total of approximately 90 million euros.

Among other things, the new Collaborative Research Centres will study the origins of diseases caused by viruses and bacteria, scarring of the liver and kidneys, and the human skin.

Other topics include the optimisation of planning, production and utilisation processes in lightweight engineering and the improvement of communications between humans and technical systems. Four Transregional Collaborative Research Centres are among the ten institutions, distributed among several locations.

In addition to these institutions, the responsible Grants Committee of Germany's central research funding organisation also agreed to continue 28 Collaborative Research Centres for an additional period. The DFG thus will fund a total of 250 Collaborative Research Centres as of next year. In 2009, they will receive around 480 million euros, including 20% overhead funding to cover indirect costs resulting from the research projects.

The Grants Committee's autumn meeting also observed the Collaborative Research Centres' 40th anniversary: in the autumn of 1968 the first 18 Collaborative Research Centres were launched – with total funding amounting to 4.4 million Deutschmarks. This new type of collaborative research was seen as a “minor revolution” DFG President Professor Matthias Kleiner remembers in an anniversary speech to the Grants Committee. In both the universities and the DFG, Kleiner said, the Collaborative Research Centres had also initially given rise to apprehension – 40 years on, they have more than fulfilled expectations.

“Universities can bundle their resources, create local priorities and promote top-level research with the aid of Collaborative Research Centres,” the DFG President underlined. In particular their concentrated quality, their interdisciplinary approach and the endurance of funding projects for up to 12 years make the Collaborative Research Centres a “programme for quantifiable, top-level research”. The Collaborative Research Centres, and their variations the Transregional Collaborative Research Centres and Transfer Projects, also contribute to promoting young researchers, to international research cooperation and to cooperation between science and the private sector. The conclusion of the DFG President following 40 years of Collaborative Research Centres: “The whole world is envious of this programme.”

The new Collaborative Research Centres in detail:
(in alphabetical order by host university)
Collaborative Research Centre/Transregional Collaborative Research Centre 57, “Organ Fibrosis: From Mechanisms of Injury to Modulation of Disease” deals with an extremely important scientific and clinical topic. Researchers at several sites study fibroses, i.e. the pathological growth of connective tissue in the liver and kidneys. This type of scarring can often lead to death and is also expensive to treat. The new project aims to decipher the still largely unknown pathophysiological fundamentals of fibrotic diseases. Identification of common molecular mechanisms in the kidneys and liver is especially important. It will only be possible to develop innovative therapies on this basis. (Host university: Rhineland-Westphalian Technical University of Aachen; Spokesperson: Professor Christian Trautwein; other universities involved: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University, Bonn, University of the Saarland, Saarbrücken.)

Detailed research into special molecules, atoms and ions with unpaired electrons is at the centre of Collaborative Research Centre 813, “Chemistry at Spin Centres – Concepts, Mechanisms, Applications”. The so-called spin centres display unusual magnetic properties and high chemical reactivity; both may be extremely important for the development of innovative materials. Among other things, the researchers involved at Bonn University and the Jülich Research Centre want to develop new theoretical and experimental methods for studying spin centres and their transformation mechanisms. The knowledge gained will be utilised for developing new reactions and multifunctional materials. (Host university: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University, Bonn; Spokesperson: Professor Frank Neese; also involved: Jülich Research Centre)

The “Management of Uncertainty in Load-bearing Systems in Mechanical Engineering” is the topic of the newly launched Collaborative Research Centre 805. In it, engineering scientists of various disciplines and mathematicians study the subject of “uncertainty”, which is prevalent in mechanical engineering in all phases of the development, production and utilisation of products and can have grave economical and safety consequences. This applies primarily to load-bearing systems in lightweight engineering, which aim to combine high load-bearing capacity, low weight and low production costs. With the aid of a particularly complex aircraft undercarriage, the Collaborative Research Centre aims to clarify how uncertainty and the resulting errors of judgement can be managed. This will help to optimise planning, production and utilisation processes. (Host university: Technical University of Darmstadt; Spokesperson: Professor Holger Hanselka; also involved: Fraunhofer Institute for Operational Strength and System Reliability, Darmstadt)

How do viruses and bacteria cause diseases – Collaborative Research Centre 796, “Control Mechanisms of Microbial Effectors in Host Cells”aims to acquire new, fundamental knowledge on this pivotal medical problem. The scientists involved will study molecular mechanisms relating to the origins of disease. They are particularly interested in the structural and molecular principles and mechanisms of the interactions between virulence factors and host factors. By incorporating both plant and human systems, the Collaborative Research Centre aims to cover as wide a spectrum of interactions between the two fields as possible. In addition, new virulence factors such as protease shall be investigated. In a holistic view, this will allow both universal and special mechanisms of the origins of diseases to be recognised. (Host university: Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen; Spokesperson: Professor Uwe Sonnewald; also involved: Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS, Erlangen)

Developing a range of optimisation options for sheet metal elements is the aim of the new Collaborative Research Centre/Transregional Collaborative Research Centre 73, based in Erlangen-Nürnberg, Dortmund and Hannover. Under the main heading of “Manufacturing Complex Functional Elements using Fine Gauge Sheet Secondary Forming Elements – Sheet Metal Mass Forming” the scientists involved aim to investigate how the functionality and complexity of sheet metal components can be increased. Scientific principles must be established for facilitating material flux not only in the plane, but also out of the sheet metal plane in fine gauge sheets. On the other hand, the focus is on the development of new, more robust and flexible production processes by a unique combination of sheet metal forming processes with the mass forming process. This should allow the number of individual components required to be reduced and heavy-duty, reduced weight elements to be produced in small and large numbers. This also involves a considerable improvement in efficiency in an important branch of industry. (Host university: Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen; Spokesperson: Professor Marion Merklein; other universities involved: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz University of Hannover, Technical University of Dortmund)

So-called redox research was previously involved primarily with the occurrence and affects of oxidative stress in disease development. Understanding reactive oxygen species as signal molecules for the physiological functions of a cell, in contrast, is a relatively new field of research. This is precisely where Collaborative Research Centre 815; “Redox Regulation: Generator Systems and Functional Consequences”, comes in. The objective is to better understand the role of redox signals in physiological processes and in the transition to pathophysiological processes. Research approaches for the targeted treatment of a variety of diseases will be developed from the information gathered. (Host university: Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main; Spokesperson: Professor Bernhard Brüne; also involved: Chemotherapy Research Institute, Georg-Speyer-Haus, Frankfurt am Main)

Collaborative Research Centre/Transregional Collaborative Research Centre 71, “Geometric Partial Differential Equations”, studies a whole series of high-calibre mathematics problems. In it, mathematicians from various disciplines study analytical problems in geometrical contexts, together with mathematical physicists. These can either be based in differential geometry or involve applications requiring geometrical modelling. The geometrical problems originate among others in geometrical measure theory and the calculus of variations. The planned work on the so-called Willmore Functional may prove to be particularly important in this respect. In terms of applications, topics ranging from quantum dynamics to the mathematical principles of solid-state physics will be tackled. The main objective is to study geometrical partial differential equations using analytical and numerical methods and computer-aided simulation, and to describe geometrical and physical phenomena. (Host university: Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg; Spokesperson: Professor Ernst Kuwert; other universities involved: Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen; University of Zurich)

The structure, functions and dynamics of biological membranes have fascinated scientists of wide-ranging disciplines for a long time. Membranes are essential to all life forms, because they provide the structures necessary for forming enclosed compartments and thus separate biochemical reactions in living cells from their environment. Nevertheless, how the membrane environment impacts on the functioning of membrane proteins and how proteins modulate the membrane structure at the molecular level generally remain a mystery. In the newly launched Collaborative Research Centre 803, “Functionality Controlled by Organisation in and between Membranes” biologists and physicists now want to gather quantitative data on the interaction of membrane lipids and proteins in an in-depth unification of theory and experiment. For example, protein and lipid functions will be predicted, and universal structural and functional origins identified. In this way, better understanding of the dynamic processes in biological membranes should be possible. (Host university: Georg-August University of Göttingen; Spokesperson: Professor Claudia Steinem, also involved: Max-Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen)

The newly launched Collaborative Research Centre 829 deals with the human skin and its function as a shield. Under the title of “Molecular Mechanisms Regulating Skin Homeostasis”, the scientists involved aim to investigate how the various components contributing to the skin's barrier function, which protects against external damage, communicate. Conversely, the molecular mechanisms that disturb equilibrium, and which may thus lead to chronic inflammatory and allergic diseases or to healing disorders, will also be clarified in more detail. Ultimately, these investigations will allow the development of new therapeutic approaches, facilitating highly targeted intervention in the disturbed metabolic pathways leading to disease. This means that the work of the Collaborative Research Centre is also of considerable medical and clinical importance from a long-term perspective. (Host university: University of Cologne; Spokesperson: Professor Thomas Michael Krieg; also involved: German Sport University Cologne, Max-Planck Institute for the Biology of Ageing, Cologne)

The highly topical problem facing Collaborative Research Centre/Transregional Collaborative Research Centre 62, “A Companion Technology for Cognitive Technical Systems”, is how communication between humans and technical systems can be improved. The engineers, computer scientists and neurobiologists involved are especially interested in how emotions may be better expressed and handled in this communication process. The aim of their work is the systematic and interdisciplinary study of cognitive capabilities – and their implementation in technical systems. Characteristics such as individuality, adaptability, availability, cooperativeness and reliability represent the main focus. Implementation of these so-called companion characteristics in cognitive technical systems is intended to allow these systems to be perceived and accepted by their users as reliable, trustworthy and emphatic assistants. The newly launched Collaborative Research Centre/Transregional Collaborative Research Centre thus aims to build the foundation for a technology which provides human users with a new dimension in their interactions with technical systems. (Host university: University of Ulm; Spokesperson: Professor Susanne Biundo-Stephan; other universities involved: Otto-von-Guericke University of Magdeburg; also involved: Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Magdeburg)

Jutta Hoehn | alfa
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