Tracking down infections with super-microscopes

Green light for the new “Centre for Structural Systems Biology”

Fahnen HZI
 Ansicht vom HZI mit Fahnen im VordergrundHelmholtz-HZI/Heinz Gramann Fahnen HZI Ansicht vom HZI mit Fahnen im VordergrundInfection researchers and physicists in northern Germany are joining together in the hunt for pathogens: under scientific co-ordination of the Braunschweiger Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI), the new “Centre for Structural Systems Biology” (CSSB) is emerging on the campus of the Deutsche Elektron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg-Bahrenfeld. This inter-disciplinary centre with partners from various universities and research facilities from Lower-Saxony, Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein is focusing on the goal of tracking down attacks by germs- and this with atomic precision. At DESY in Hamburg, the Federal Minister for Education and Research,  Professor Annette Schavan, together with the Hamburg Senator for Science, Dr. Herlind Gundelach, and the Lower-Saxony Minister for Science and Culture, Professor Johanna Wanka, signed the Federal-State agreement for construction of the CSSB. A total of 50 M. euros is being made available for this project.  


“Infection research in northern Germany already has an excellent reputation”, said Professor Dirk Heinz, Acting Scientific Managing Director of the HZI. “We are now making use of the synergies from various research fields in a much better way. The CSSB – like a lighthouse – is going to make our research efforts more visible at both the national and international levels.”  


“Our light sources are world-class and offer optimal conditions for structural biology. With the aid of super-microscopes such as PETRA III and FLASH, the molecular basis for diseases can be analyzed with extremely high spatial and temporal resolution”, emphasizes the Chairman for the DESY governing body, Professor Helmut Dosch.  


Pathogens are miniscule; nevertheless they generate considerable repercussions for human beings. Even smaller are the tools with which these pathogens are able to infect us; the interplay of molecules upon their surfaces enables them to gain access into our bodies. Structural biologists are deciphering these interactions at the atomic level and examining precisely how molecules and proteins are constructed. In this manner, researchers are able to reveal much more than just the process of reciprocal effects between pathogens and their hosts. They can also find points of application for new active ingredients, anti-infectives and vaccines.   System biologists, on the other hand, are examining biological systems such as cells or pathogens in their totality: Which processes are simultaneously taking place within an organism at a specific point in time? They collect and assess huge quantities of data regarding metabolism processes as well as interactions between proteins.  


The CSSB is creating a bridge between structural biology and system biology; this is the place where biologists, chemists, physicians, physicists and engineers are jointly evaluating the interactions between pathogens and their hosts. In this regard, DESY is able to make available to them, unique in Germany, the following: PETRA III, the world’s most brilliant storage-ring-based X-ray source, and FLASH, the world’s first-ever X-ray free-electron laser in the vacuum ultraviolet and in the soft X-ray region.  Additionally, the European XFEL, a first-class X-ray laser, is currently being built and the “Center for Free-Electron Laser Science” (CFEL) will be erected on the DESY campus as well. These light sources, based on particle accelerators, produce intensive shortwave rays (radiation?) with special characteristics. On this basis, researchers can examine biological samples in various styles – from the structural analysis of individual molecules to real-time representation of the functions within living cells.  


In light of inter-disciplinary co-operation in the new CSSB research facility, it will be much easier to use the highly-modern radiation sources at DESY for biological issues. In this manner, departments from university and non-university research facilities work together at DESY in close collaboration in order to examine and better understand, with the aid of system biology, complex cellular functions with the “super microscopes”.   Planning for the construction is slated to commence immediately after the signing of the contract; construction is planned for the year 2012.

Partners in the Centre for Structural Systems Biology:




Universität Hamburg, Fakultät für Mathematik, Informatik und Naturwissenschaften
Universitätsklinikum Eppendorf, Hamburg
Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY
Heinrich-Pette Institut für Experimentelle Virologie und Immunologie, Hamburg
Bernhard-Nocht-Institut für Tropenmedizin, Hamburg 




Helmholtz-Zentrum für Infektionsforschung, Braunschweig
Medizinische Hochschule Hannover




Universität zu Lübeck
Forschungszentrum Borstel, Leibniz-Zentrum für Medizin und Biowissenschaften



National and international Partners:

European Molecular Biology Laboratory EMBL
Forschungszentrum Jülich


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