Collaborative Research Centre success: Leipzig University has three reasons to be cheerful

The University’s new Collaborative Research Centre (CRC), “Structural Dynamics of GPCR Activation and Signal Transduction”, will focus on how cells communicate via important receptors. Its spokesperson will be Professor Annette G. Beck-Sickinger. Applications for a second funding period were also successful for the projects “Arctic Climate Change (AC)³” (spokesperson: Professor Manfred Wendisch, Leipzig Institute for Meteorology) and “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” (spokesperson: Professor Matthias Middell, head of Leipzig University’s Centre for Area Studies). Brief descriptions of these three Collaborative Research Centres can be found below. The news means that Leipzig University now represents some five Collaborative Research Centres (including so-called Transregios) and participates in a further seven.

“This is a great day for our university,” commented Rector Professor Beate Schücking on hearing of the announcement. “This is a testament to everybody’s hard work and is a triple success. The result couldn’t have been better.” The Rector pointed out that today’s decision by the German Research Foundation (DFG) is one of a series of positive developments for Leipzig University’s research activities. “We have already been granted a number of DFG Research Units this year, as well as all 22 of the tenure-track professorships we applied for. We receive funding for our Understanding Obesity research centre. The Collaborative Research Centre ‘Polymers under Multiple Constraints’, which we run together with the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, has been extended for a third funding period. And together with our partners abroad, we form one of the ‘European Universities’ selected by the EU Commission. The list goes on. In short: 2019 has clearly been a truly successful year for Leipzig.” Paying tribute to the immense effort that went into the three latest CRC proposals, the Rector said: “I would like to thank all those who were involved in the proposals – and of course congratulate them on their success.”

Professor Erich Schröger, Vice-Rector for Research and Young Academics, emphasised: “With the Collaborative Research Centres that have been approved today, researchers from our university and our partner institutions are making a very important contribution to society as a whole. The approvals show that we are on the right track with our research profile. Our strategic research fields ‘Changed Order in a Globalised World’ and ‘Sustainable Principles for Life and Health’ have once again been endorsed by external expertise and given a boost by the research decisions. We will continue our path along the Leipzig Way as described in our University Development Plan (HEP) 2025. This is an integrated programme for research excellence and a key element of our overall strategy.” Schröger added: “One crucial factor has been how well we have positioned our Department of Research and Transfer.”

“Structural Dynamics of GPCR Activation and Signal Transduction” (CRC 1423)

Cells communicate with each other and their environment via receptors. These are located in the cell wall and recognise a specific signal, which they transmit inside the cell and thus cause the cell to react. G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are the largest group of these membrane receptors and found in almost all living organisms. GPCRs have a pivotal role in medicine: approximately 30 per cent of all prescription drugs act via these receptors, but so far the potential of only a small group of receptors has been exploited. “In the past, there was a significant focus on developing an understanding of molecular processes. However, the way GPCRs interact with the body’s own hormones as well as drugs is far more complex than previously thought. In the new CRC, we want to investigate how peptide receptors and adhesion receptors – GPCRs that have so far been the subject of little research – interact with their partners. By elucidating their dynamic structural states, it will be possible to understand how they function. This will ultimately enable us to develop novel drugs for this group of GPCRs as well,” explained Professor Annette G. Beck-Sickinger, spokesperson of CRC 1423.

To strengthen its position in this field, this year Leipzig University secured an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, which will be filled from 1 January 2020 by the chemist and bioinformatics researcher Professor Jens Meiler. He is one of the world’s most distinguished researchers in the field of computer-aided drug discovery. “We use digital simulations and artificial intelligence to model GPCRs on computers. With these methods, in the CRC 1423 we will be able to propose targeted experiments that will accelerate research,” explains Meiler. Together with Vanderbilt University, where he worked for 15 years, a graduate school for junior researchers will be established and two visiting professorships hosted, so-called Mercator Fellows.

“Arctic Climate Change (AC)³” (CRC/Transregio 172)

The Collaborative Research Centre “Arctic Climate Change (AC)³”, led by meteorologist Professor Manfred Wendisch from Leipzig University, has been extended for a second funding period. From January 2020, the research alliance – which also includes the Universities of Bremen and Cologne as well as the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) in Leipzig – will continue its successful work for a further four years. The aim of the research network is to observe the current dramatic change in climate in the Arctic using various methods, in order to improve the reliability of models for predicting the warming already recorded in the region.

“In the first phase, we have successfully observed, and reproduced through models, above all those local processes that contribute significantly to explaining the phenomenon of Arctic amplification,” explains Wendisch. Clouds play a decisive role here. Three extensive survey campaigns were carried out in the Arctic. In the second phase, the previous investigations will be extended to the inner Arctic – and an observation period of a whole year – in order to quantify seasonal differences. This will involve deploying the research aircraft HALO together with the aircraft Polar 5 and Polar 6 in conjunction with the icebreaker Polarstern. The latter three are part of the MOSAiC expedition, which is led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). The Polarstern will spend 14 months trapped in the Arctic ice. (AC)³ is the main contribution of German universities to the MOSAiC expedition. “In the second phase, our general goal is to better understand the interaction between different feedback mechanisms that are thought to be the cause of Arctic amplification,” explains Wendisch.

Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition (CRC 1199)

In Collaborative Research Centre 1199, Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition, scientists investigate how political, economic and legal spaces are negotiated and created in society in order to provide a framework for processes of globalisation. Leipzig University’s partners here are the Leibniz Institute for History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography (IfL) and the TU Dresden.

“During the first research phase, we developed an innovative category system that facilitates a comparative investigation of processes of respatialization for the period since the late eighteenth century,” reports the research alliance’s spokesperson Professor Matthias Middell, who is a historian and head of the Centre for Area Studies at Leipzig University. “This is of particular relevance because in contemporary world politics a number of projects converge that all aim to globalise the world in very different ways and at the same time to reorder it in geopolitical terms.” Middell notes that the CRC is known for its wide-ranging expertise in area studies, “which has enabled us to examine examples from Africa, Asia, Australia, the two Americas and different parts of Europe.”

For the second phase, the CRC team is planning a major series of handbooks that will describe and compare such globalisation projects. “Our focus is by no means limited to projects represented by the likes of Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, or regional organisations such as the European Union or the African Union,” explains Middell. “Rather, we are also concerned with economic and cultural respatializations in the world, as they were or are implemented by large corporations, or as part of infrastructure projects by entire states – or as they have been imagined in various cultural trends. These imaginations, which at times remain pure fantasies, are particularly interesting for us because they show alternatives to ongoing processes and sometimes also express utopias of the world as a place designed in a completely different way.”

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