"If we do not find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new" – these are not the words of Dr Bernhard Ellinger himself, but of the French philosopher Voltaire. Ellinger used the quotation at the beginning of his doctoral thesis, and it still serves the biologist as a guiding motto to this day: "We keep discovering fascinating organisms and new molecular activities of which we were previously unaware", explains Ellinger. "Whether industry will actually follow them up and further investigate them is another question. " This is a crucial question for Bernhard Ellinger: he works at the interface between research and application at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME in Hamburg, where he has been developing testing systems for biological and chemical substances ever since finishing his PhD ten years ago.
"We feed a purely biological problem into a model that can be studied and is also suitable for an application", says Ellinger. For example, when researchers come to him with an idea for optimising an enzyme or have discovered a protein that could potentially be used in the battle against cancer, he and his team work out how to design a testing system that will supply meaningful data to answer the relevant question. Applications range from drug development and medical technology to bioeconomy. "It's a very interesting challenge because it involves very rapidly acquiring a general overview of a field that a researcher might already have spent decades studying", remarks Ellinger.
Research to save resources
A few years ago, Bernhard Ellinger thoroughly familiarised himself with the biology of fungi. He had been asked to investigate a collection of nearly 300 types of fungi to determine whether they produce enzymes that break down cellulose. Such enzymes turn cellulose into sugar and could be used in the future to produce fuels from biomass containing cellulose, such as straw or wood pellets. "The material came from Vietnam, a biodiversity hotspot, and we did indeed find some new organisms. We then explored in a second step which conditions are needed for these fungal strains to produce such enzymes", reports Ellinger. The testing systems at the Fraunhofer Institute in Hamburg are quick: they can test as many as 30,000 batches with different combinations per day. Ellinger's team found what they were looking for and were able to describe two promising enzymes. "Breaking down the cellulose is still an extremely inefficient process in energy terms because the raw materials have to be boiled at 120 degrees; what is more, this has to be done in diluted acid, which produces a lot of toxic waste water", the scientist explains. The work he and his colleagues are doing could help optimise this process to make it more resource-efficient.
Bridging the gap between an idea and its application is also Ellinger's job at InnoHealth China. This is an ongoing campaign of "Research in Germany", an initiative of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is responsible for InnoHealth China. In his role as an expert, Ellinger examines project ideas relating to the bioeconomy and material or healthcare research that have been submitted by German-Chinese affiliations of research and industry and assesses their prospects of scientific and technical success. "It is not enough for an idea to work only in the lab; it must also be translated into technology", is something Ellinger knows from experience.
Germany is an attractive location for research
Once Ellinger and his team have submitted their assessment, their job normally comes to an end – unless the industrial partners decide to follow up the project. "This last step of getting industry excited about the idea is incredibly difficult", admits Ellinger, despite being convinced that Germany is virtually the perfect place for research thanks to its research-intensive industry, its state funding of applied research, and its involvement in European research projects such as EU-OPENSCREEN.
Even if not all of his team's projects make it to the market, one of the numerous ideas could soon give rise to an approved market product. It involves a surface coating for medical materials such as implants or nails. As Ellinger explains, the Fraunhofer coating has an especially long-lasting antimicrobial effect.
This will not be the last time that new insights gained in the lab will lead to a new product being placed on the market. After all, the 40-year-old scientist still has a lifetime of research ahead of him.
Author: Kristina Vaillant