Research knows no borders
In the search for novel medications – for example against multi-resistant pathogens – scientists look for new agents. They have to collect samples from all over the world for this purpose.
A typical meal at a work meeting in Indonesia consists of rice snacks rolled up in banana leaves, whereby the leaves usually are not eaten. “But if you do eat them you can be sure of the approving glances of the locals,“ Joachim Wink explains after learning this lesson at the start of an international research project.
Wink is the head of the “Microbial Strain Collection“ at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI), which is closely associated with the “Microbial Drugs“ department of Marc Stadler. The focus of the two scientists and their teams is on the discovery of new natural products from microorganisms and fungi. The latter organisms and the soil-dwelling myxo- and actinobacteria release a plethora of chemical substances, which they use to keep away food competitors, predators or parasites. Since these substances are directed against other bacteria or viruses, they are suitable as new candidate agents.
To be able to get our hands on new microorganisms, we need environmental samples from all over the world and we collaborate with research institutes and universities in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Algeria, Kenya, Jordan and Iran.
Stadler‘s and Wink‘s research groups are staffed internationally as well: Scientists from all over the world come to the HZI for internships, research stays or doctoral work. In turn, researchers of the HZI travel to the partner countries for guest visits, laboratory courses, meetings or collection campaigns. “All of our work is designed on an international level, the laboratory language is English. Only this allows the expertise to be exchanged between the partner laboratories.“
One current project, abbreviated GINAICO, which stands for “German Indonesian Anti-Infectives Cooperation“, is funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) in the scope of a framework programme with the Indonesian government. The partners include not only the HZI, but also the TWINCORE, the universities of Oldenburg and Bremen in Germany as well as the LIPI Institutes (Indonesian Institute of Sciences) for chemistry, biotechnology and oceanography. Indonesia is one of the countries that are richest in species and features an impressive diversity of habitats.
The high biodiversity is accompanied by a high potential for the discovery of new species.
In the scope of GINAICO, the scientists aim to isolate previously unknown groups of myxo- and actinobacteria as these have proven to be sure sources of novel natural products in the past.
The first collection campaign took place in April 2016: Joachim Wink and his colleague Kathrin Mohr joined their Indonesian partners to collect environmental samples on Bali and in the Bandung and Bogor regions from various habitats such as the ocean, mangroves, rainforest, rice fields, park areas and even a volcanic caldera. Wink and Mohr also organised a laboratory course at a partner institution to train Indonesian students, technical staff, doctoral students and scientists in the handling of the challenging myxobacteria.
At the weekend, the researchers visited the botanical garden in Bogor – and used this opportunity for an extensive sample collection. “Not only the trees are so impressive because of their breathtaking size,“ says Wink. “Some toad species also reach impressive sizes.“
Meanwhile, supported by the DAAD and Indonesian institutions, Wink‘s team has added two Indonesian doctoral students and two more will join the team soon. The HZI researchers already isolated and tested the first myxo- and actinobacteria from the Indonesian samples. One new natural product is already being processed. “Aided by international cooperation projects, such as GINAICO, we can investigate even unusual habitats in far-away countries for microorganisms producing tomorrow’s anti-infective drugs,“ says Marc Stadler. But this can be done only if research transcending borders keeps being possible.
Authors: Kathrin I. Mohr, Joachim Wink and Marc Stadler