Dresden’s New Max Planck Institute: A Rising Star in the East

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder doesn?t often turn up at the opening of a new research facility. Some might put it down to being on the election campaign trail, but then the Max Plank Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics ( MPI-CBG) in Dresden is a little different from most. For a start, the average age of staff working in the new building, where Schröder cut the ribbon on 27 March, is just 32. And you?re as likely to hear English spoken in its corridors as German. Of the current complement of 230 staff, 41% are not of German nationality, but come from over 30 different countries, so English is the primary working language. The institute?s five directors reflect this cultural diversity. Only one is German; the others hail from Finland, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Italy. The institute?s spokesperson, Claudia Lorenz, asserts, "we would be happy to welcome even more" scientists from around the world.

The MPI-CBG was already founded in 1998. But until January 2001, when the Dresden facility was completed, the already existing research groups worked in labs in Heidelberg, Berlin, Göttingen and Seattle. Now, the institute hosts 20 research groups at Dresden, growing to 21 this summer. By the time MPI-CBG reaches full strength in 2003, it will be home to 350 staff and doctoral students working in 25 groups to answer the question "How do cells form tissues?" It might sound trivial, but the question is a fundamental one at the interface of cell and developmental biology. A combination of experimental strategies, including novel genetic, morphological, and biophysical approaches, is being used to tackle the question.

This interdisciplinary approach is also at the heart of MPI-CBG?s training policy. With the Technical University of Dresden ( TUD), the institute is hosting an International Max Planck Research School for Molecular Cell Biology and Bioengineering. The PhD programme provides interdisciplinary training and research opportunities for university graduates who wish to work toward a PhD in the fields of molecular cell biology, bioengineering, developmental biology, genetics, biophysics and neurobiology. Most PhD students will take 3 to 4 years to complete their dissertations. This includes a preparatory training phase during which students are supported by predoctoral fellowships, either provided by the research groups of the MPI-CBG and TUD or obtained by the student from another source. So far, the International Research School has 63 PhD students. The number is expected to grow to about 120 by the end of 2003. An International Office helps foreigners to find their way through German bureaucracy quickly. TUD will also launch a new master?s programme "Molecular Bioengineering" in the winter semester of 2002.

The arrival of the MPI-CBG is giving life sciences and biotechnology in the whole Dresden area a boost. An academia-industry network, called BioMeT, has been established to encourage co-operation between different institutions, for the advancement of both scientific education and research. Closer links between academic and commercial researchers is also the aim of a new Bio Innovation Centre (BIOZ) which will be completed by the end of next year. The centre will host labs for innovative biotech companies and six full TUD professorial chairs. With its geographical location close to the Czech Republic and Poland, Dresden-based scientists are also planning to establish contacts with Eastern European partners.

Despite its youth, the MPI-CBG has already spawned three start-up companies. These include Cenix Bioscience, which has developed a new lab technique to identify the genes that are involved in cell division, predicted to be very useful for finding potential new targets for anticancer drugs. With the other two start-ups genebridges and jadolabs, Cenix is still residing on the Max Planck premises, but will move to the BIOZ as soon as its facilities there are ready.

The excellent infrastructure has drawn plenty of highly qualified researchers to Dresden. At just 31, biologist and DFG Emmy Noether Programme Fellow Carl-Phillip Heisenberg is running his own lab, currently comprising four PhD students, one postdoc, and one technical assistant. His group studies the cellular and genetic control of gastrulation movements in zebrafish, one of the model organisms studied at the institute besides Drosophila, the C. elegans worm, frogs, mice, and newts. "For young scientists, this really is a great place", he enthuses. But, he says, the MPI is still like an island in Dresden: "You could survive here without having to speak German or participating in cultural activities." Nonetheless, although institute volleyball and soccer teams already exist, a permanent state of isolation is unlikely. The city on the Elbe River offers an "excellent quality of life", he says, and who would not choose to enjoy that?

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