Newsletter PS-Park 'n' Science, 2nd edition, Dec. 2009
English text version of the Park'n'Science newsletterTable of Contents
Future antibiotics from tobacco?
Into the cell with the micro-shuttle
Eyesight thanks to artificial cornea
Prizes, Awards and Medals
Highest award of the German Colloid Society for Helmuth Möhwald
Remembered: Wolfgang Ostwald
The best for children
New application centre for polymer nanotechnologies
Magic ink and earthworms
An enthusiastic reception at the Children’s University
First GO:INcubator Venture Forum
Benefit concert given by the music students in aid of the ProSoYa project
Inaugural lectures at the University of Potsdam
Brandenburg’s contributions to medicine
Medical research has not been confined to the clinic for a long time. That is why Brandenburg’s decision to do without its own medical faculty does not mean that it is abandoning this seminal branch of research. Medicine at the highest level is inconceivable without intelligent, well-engineered materials and new discoveries at the cellular and molecular level. All of this is being driven forward with vigour and great success at the Potsdam-Golm Science Park, as witnessed by the many prizes and awards its researchers have received. The first page of this PS edition only has room to present a few of the many highlights.
Soon young parents will be able to carry out their research unencumbered by worries over child care and largely free from time constraints. The new Fröbel day-care centre will set a milestone in the compatibility between family life and work, and add a new quality of life dimension to the research location.
Enthusiasm for their own subject and a high level of commitment are the hallmarks of the working groups exhibiting at the open day that was held at the institutes and the children’s university with numerous demonstrations and experiments. Visitors both tall and small were equally fascinated – and we can well imagine some future career plans were laid there too.
But even with the best working conditions and high motivation we still need a break, and so I wish you relaxing holidays and a good beginning to the New Year.
Future antibiotics from tobacco?
Potential to grow proteins with antibiotic properties in tobacco plants.
Fig. Tobacco plants are suitable for producing antibiotics against pneumonia | Image: Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology
At first glance, the combination of tobacco and medicine seems as unlikely as fire and water. Hitherto tobacco has been linked to health-damaging and carcinogenic attributes, but recently scientists have begun using tobacco plants to produce highly effective drugs. Tobacco is an especially suitable plant for this type of production, as it produces a lot of leafy material in a very short time and is also not used as a food.
The chloroplasts in tobacco plants, the location of photosynthesis, when genetically modified can produce large quantities of antibiotic-acting proteins, as was demonstrated in earlier work by the working group led by Professor Ralph Bock at the Max-Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology. Special viruses (bacteriophages) attack bacteria, reprogramme their genetic material in order to multiply themselves and then dissolve the bacterium in order to be released.
In order to obtain a high yield from these antibiotic-acting proteins in the plant after the backdoor recruitment of the bacteriophage gene, the gene must first be prepared in the laboratory bacterium Escherichia coli by molecular genetic methods in order to ensure efficient protein production in the chloroplast. However, the gene already here, i.e. before its transfer to the chloroplasts, must be prevented from being converted into protein, as otherwise the laboratory bacterium would be killed immediately.
Ralph Bock and his team have found a method that makes it possible to make the gene functional for forming the lysins only after transfer to the chloroplast. This newly developed strategy relies on a difference in the way that genetic information is read between chloroplasts and bacteria. In the bacterium, certain gene sequences (terminators) are used to mark the end of a gene and so end the reading process (transcription) of the DNA, which leads to the formation of a messenger RNA (mRNA). These terminators are effectively “skipped” when read in chloroplasts. In order to prevent the toxic gene products (antibiotic-acting proteins) from forming too early, the scientists used terminators that act to end the reading process in the bacterium prematurely. However, because the information in the chloroplasts is read in full, the synthesis of the lysin antibiotic can proceed there unhindered. With a further molecular trick, once the new gene has been successfully introduced into the genome of the chloroplasts, the terminators, now no longer needed, are removed, so that at the end only the lysin genes remain as new genetic information in the chloroplast. “The effectiveness of the lysins produced in the chloroplasts was convincingly demonstrated in tests on bacteria cultures of Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is the pathogen that causes pneumonia,” explains Dr Bernd Kreikemeyer of the Institute for Medical Microbiology, Virology and Hygiene at the University of Rostock. Even small quantities of the lysins were shown to be highly effective. The proportion of lysin to total protein in the tobacco plants was as much as 30 per cent.
“The antibacterial proteins obtained from plants for therapeutic use are safer than proteins obtained directly from virus-infected bacteria. What's more, no further cleaning steps are required to remove the damaging bacterial endotoxins,” says Professor Ralph Bock, highlighting the benefits of antibiotic production in plants.
In the case of tobacco, the genetic modification of the chloroplasts is killing two birds with one stone: the antibiotic production is very high, as each plant cell has a large number of chloroplasts, and the modified genetic information is barely passed on at all in the plant’s pollen, which increases the plants’ biological safety.
Into the cell with the micro-shuttle
Microcapsules release substances in cells “on command”.
Image: Micro-shuttles (orange) inside two cells (green), taken with a confocal microscope.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam-Golm, the Jacobs University of Bremen and the Queen Mary University of London have succeeded for the first time in introducing microcapsules into living cells without damaging them and in releasing their contents with a laser pulse at a precisely controlled time. With this method the researchers have managed to describe immune processes in the cell’s interior for the first time, from the release of foreign proteins within the cell to their incorporation on the cell surface. Reactions of the organism such as the immune response to virus infections can only be understood if the transport and conversion steps of the substances involved can be followed in exact chronological order. Often this is done using marker molecules whose fate can then be traced in the cells using different detection methods. However, many of these methods have one decisive drawback: the molecular markers cannot be introduced into the living cells in sufficient quantity. Then again, other preparation methods with higher reagent concentrations impair the cell functions and thus the normal course of the processes being examined.
The aim of the research cooperation was therefore to prepare living cells with as little damage as possible and with defined quantities of experimental markers and then to release them inside the cells in a controlled fashion and at a defined point in time. This should however only occur after the cells have recovered from the negative effects of preparation.
To introduce the substance, the researchers developed “miniature shuttles” from special metabolic-resistant plastic fibres with incorporated nanogold particles. The micro-transporters are about as large as a small bacterium, with a diameter of around two micrometres. The microcapsules were made by wrapping the plastic fibres around a mineral core like a net, which is then dissolved using acid. The porous micro-hollow spheres this produces can then absorb the released test substance and are then easily sealed by heating.
The filled capsules are then diffused through the cell walls, which have previously been made permeable to particles of this size using electroporation, a type of electric shock treatment. To release the test substance inside the cell, the cells are then shot at with an infrared laser, which does not damage the cells, but which is absorbed by the nanogold particles in the capsule walls. The “shuttles” heat up, and the capsule walls melt.
The scientists have already proved that this method works. They introduced microcapsules with artificial, fluorescent-marked protein fragments into liquid-cultivated, living rodent cells. After releasing these markers with the laser pulse, the researchers were able to observe the dispersion of the foreign peptide markers in the cell, their take-up by protein components of the immune system, the MHC proteins, and their transport to the cell surface and incorporation there as antigens in high time resolution under the fluorescent microscope.
Eyesight thanks to artificial cornea
Development by the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research is in clinical trials
The artificial cornea developed by Fraunhofer research scientist Dr Joachim Storsberg and his team in cooperation with doctors at the Halle and Regensburg University Eye Clinic has been successfully implanted in a patient for the very first time. “His sight is definitely better than before,” reports Storsberg.
The cornea, the crystal-clear, curved front part of the outer layer of the eye is the “window to the eye ball” and plays a major part in refracting light for image focusing. The cornea is kept moist with tear fluid, which not only provides it with nutrients, but also protects it against infections and reduces the friction caused by blinking. This involves some complex interactions between the surface of the cornea and the tear fluid.
However, mechanical accidents and chemical burns, inflammations and diseases such as infection with the herpes virus as well as genetic malformations can damage the cornea so badly that without the transplant of a new cornea patients would go blind. In this operation the central part of the damaged cornea is removed and replaced with a graft. Because the cornea is not supplied with nutrients via the bloodstream, but from the tear fluid, the risk of rejection is low, even in the case of donor corneas. However, according to Storsberg, every year there are around 7,000 people waiting for a donor cornea in Germany alone, which is why the artificial cornea offers a real alternative.
The standards for this type of prosthesis are high, since it has to fulfil a number of opposing tasks on a very small surface. For this the scientist developed a prosthesis based on a water-repellent polymer that adheres to the natural cornea of the eye. “The edge of the disc that has to be incorporated was covered with active polymers to make it stick,” explains Storsberg. A special, ultra-thin layer of hydrogel, which is polymerised into the front optical area, ensures on the other hand that no cells can stray into the centre of the prosthesis, to keep the field of vision clear. The tear film and also medicaments are effective in keeping it moist, and the eyelid does not perceive the implant as a foreign body. In addition, the whole mini-prosthesis has to be thermally stable in order to survive the sterilisation process.
The cornea is the outcome of the EU-funded “Cornea” research project, in which several institutions have been collaborating since 2005. “Provided further tests prove successful, we hope the product will be on the market by the middle of 2010,” says project spokesman Georg Langstrof.
Prizes, Awards and Medals
The format of the Potsdam Science Park is growing not only in size but in substance too. Numerous accolades of various kinds have been received by the park’s researchers, postgraduates, students and start-up businesses over the last six months. The icing on the cake was the prize of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft for “Excellence in Teaching” awarded to the whole university. The lecturers are qualified for a skills-oriented and research-based teaching profession in target group-specific qualification courses for junior teaching professionals, post-docs and senior teaching professionals. To establish their effectiveness and the developing skills of the students, a longitudinal section of study biographies was monitored in an online student panel. Prize money: 1 million euros.
The Macro Group UK Medal for Outstanding Achievement 2008 of the Royal Society of Chemistry was awarded to Professor Markus Antonietti, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. This medal is awarded to an outstanding international scientist in the field of large molecule research.
The Tetrahedron Young Investigator Award 2010 for Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry was awarded to Professor Peter H. Seeberger, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. Seeberger is rewarded for his research into biologically relevant carbohydrates and their role in the molecular recognition of cell interfaces and thereby infections and immune reactions.
The Potsdam quantum physicist Prof. Dr. Jens Eisert became a fellow of the Berlin Institute of Advanced Study. Around 40 fellows from different countries and scientific disciplines form a research community at the college for a set period which promotes intellectual and intercultural exchange beyond their own specialist field.
The honorary title of “Culture Manager of the Year 2009” was bestowed on Folkert Uhde, head of the Berlin RADIALSYSTEM space for the arts in Berlin and also lecturer at the Institute of Music. The jury praised Uhde’s ability to “create new formats which link different categories and genres in a principle of dialogue”.
The “Women in Science” prize went to Dr. Margarita Staykova, a biophysicist at the Max-Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. The prize, which is worth €20,000, is awarded by Unesco, the L’Oréal cosmetics group and the Christiane Nüssland Vollhard Foundation and is directed at outstandingly qualified postgraduates with children working in Germany in the experimental sciences and is designed to enable them to avoid breaks in their career when starting a family.
The BIOTECHNICA studies prize was awarded to a thesis produced at Golm: Ulrike Glaubitz of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology took third place in the prize awarded by the VBIO, the central association for biology, biosciences and biomedicine in Germany. The prize is endowed with a total of 5,000 euros and is sponsored by Roche.
Second place in the “photonics21” competition for the “Student Innovation Award” was won by Andreas Jechow. The doctoral student at the Institute of Physics and Astronomy at the Hochschule Potsdam was rewarded for his paper on “Licht aus Breitstreifenlasern in externen Resonatoren – Erschließung neuer Anwendungen”, which he wrote as part of his dissertation.
The team at Signavio GmbH was awarded the first prize endowed with 25,000 euros at IFA, the world’s leading consumer electronics event in Berlin. It was presented by Dagmar Wöhrl, Parliamentary Secretary of State at the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Together with Signavio GmbH the GO-Incubator team was happy about the prize, as they had helped the winners in the start-up phase.
Highest award of the German Colloid Society