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What do hygienically clean door handles and “living” implants have in common? Both innovations are the result of collaboration in a whole host of different disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, genetic engineering, medicine, pharmacy and engineering. Where life is the subject of their research, they are known by the umbrella term life sciences.
From macro to micro: all the processes of life
The life sciences study the processes of life in humans, animals and plants, exploring not only the organism as a whole but also the tiniest building blocks of life. Proteins for example form the backbone of cells, as well as regulating various functions – acting like tiny molecular machines. They recognise neurotransmitters, transport substances in the cells or trigger chemical reactions.
How do organisms grow?
With his team, Stephan Grill, a professor of biophysics at the Biotechnology Center TU Dresden (BIOTEC), is studying two proteins, actin and myosin. In cells, these molecules generate the forces that give an organism its shape as it grows. Why do the various organs position themselves on the left or right in the human body? This is one of the fundamental questions in biology which Grill and his colleagues are keen to answer.
Exciting cellular experiments in space
Space research is also driving the life sciences forward. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) plans and coordinates experiments on board the International Space Station (ISS). In 2014 and 2015, for instance, cultures from human endothelial cells from the laboratory of Professor Daniela Grimm at Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg were flown from the USA to the space station. The results when the samples were brought back to Earth were astounding: in conditions of zero gravity, the cells that line the body’s blood vessels had not multiplied in just one direction as they normally do. Instead, they had combined to form three-dimensional tubular structures – almost a new blood vessel. If Grimm and her colleagues succeed in working out why, this could help explain the mechanisms involved in malign cell growth in tumours. At the same time, this could make it possible to grow artificial blood vessels in the lab – as “living” replacements for patients with damaged vessels.
"Living" implants are also the focus of research taking place at the Berlin-Brandenburger Centrum für Regenerative Therapien (BCRT). Such implants can consist of cell cultures or indeed of novel types of degradable biomaterials. They differ from conventional implants in the sense that they interact with the body’s own cells – thanks to their mechanical properties as well as via chemical signalling substances. Researchers at the BCRT are working among other things on bio-implants that can rebuild damaged bones or cartilage or regenerate cardiac muscle tissue.
Strength in numbers
Research in the life sciences depends not only on the expertise of scientists in all kinds of disciplines but also on sophisticated technical infrastructure. This is needed for instance in genome sequencing, and for the rapid analysis of biological processes in a mass spectrometer. For this reason, German research institutions have teamed up and are working together. The BCRT is one good example: it is an alliance between the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Helmholtz Association. Others include the Integrated Research Institute for Life Sciences (IRI) that opened at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in 2013, and the Life Science Campus Martinsried near Munich.
Young researchers needed in the life sciences
Perhaps more than in other areas, research in the life sciences is always dependent on the next generation – because of its technology-driven dynamism. This is why the IRI runs both bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes, while Campus Martinsried has set up its own PhD programme. Smaller universities like Universität zu Lübeck with its science and medical focus are also following their lead – it has been training mathematicians in the life sciences for the past ten years. These desperately needed experts help biologists, doctors and physicists to extract findings from the huge data volumes they generate using modern analytical methods.
Life sciences at the Leopoldina
The Leopoldina is the German National Academy of Sciences. It explores socially relevant topics from a scientific perspective and conveys its findings to the public sphere. Examples of subjects in the life sciences include new fields of research such as synthetic biology, as well as the controversial issue of animal experiments in biomedicine.www.leopoldina.org > Life Sciences