Profile Area Structure & Dynamics of Life

Mission Statement

The Profile Area “Structure and Dynamics of Life" (SDL) is a driving force within Goethe University's scientific internationalization strategy. It is connected with the Structural Genomics Consortium, heads the European Research Infrastructure Consortium INSTRUCT-ERIC, and participates in numerous European projects. It is an essential hub for Life Science research in Frankfurt, the Rhine-Main region and beyond. By combining cutting-edge research projects led by established scientists with the training of promising young researchers, SDL aims to build on its existing strengths and promote the emergence of new collaborative initiatives.

Profile Area Spokespersons

“The Profile Area Structure and Dynamics of Life means to unravel the secrets of life in space and time on scales ranging from the molecular to the macromolecular level all the way to cells, tissues and eventually organisms. Structural and dynamic investigations are strongholds of Frankfurt, which we strengthen continuously and for which we build new tools. I find this spatiotemporal multiscale approach incredibly fascinating."

Alexander Heckel (Chemical Biology)
Spokesperson of the Profile Area Structure & Dynamics of Life

“Cells are the basic units of life. To understand how biological systems function, we must have a deep understanding of the building blocks that make up cells and how they fit together to form their highly complex internal structure.  We also need to grasp how this structure dynamically self-assembles, maintains its equilibrium and continuously remodels itself to adapt to the environment, both under healthy and pathological conditions. These are to me the challenging oals of the Profile Area."

Virginie Lecaudey (Cell Biology and Neuroscience)
Spokesperson of the Profile Area Structure & Dynamics of Life

Key Research Areas

The main objective of the Profile Area "Structure and Dynamics of Life" is to discover the building blocks of living systems and how these building blocks dynamically remodel, move and interact in space and time. The building blocks of living systems range from single molecules to macromolecular complexes, organelles, cells, organs, and even whole organisms. To understand how a biological system, e.g. a cell, functions, it is not only essential to precisely dissect its structure, it is also necessary to understand how these structural elements evolve in a dynamic way at the spatiotemporal resolution of the system. Beyond understanding how a biological system functions "at equilibrium", another main goal of SDL is to identify the basic principles that allow this system to adapt to internal or external changes, such as stress or pathological conditions.

To address these questions, scientists need instruments and tools allowing them to study and interfere with biological systems at these very different spatiotemporal scales. For this reason, Goethe University maintains centers for nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectroscopy, as well as electron and optical microscopy. In addition, essential tools are specially built to induce light-driven processes. In this context, the genetic manipulation of organisms plays a crucial role to observe the diverse processes under physiological conditions.

Currently, the SCALE (SubCellular Architecture of LifE) consortium is preparing a full proposal for the Cluster of Excellence funding line in the context of the Excellence Strategy (ExStra). SCALE, integrating many scientists of the Profile Area, brings together expertise from cell biology, biophysics, molecular biology, neurobiology, chemistry, bioinformatics and mathematics. It will develop radically novel experimental techniques to map and to simulate the interior of cells, and to predict their behavior. This research will provide important new insights into bacterial resistance, inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases and immune defense.

Other main research themes in SDL include RNA-based processes, membrane and organelle dynamics, neuronal molecular and cellular architectures, cell-cell interactions, and light-driven processes, as well as their many interconnections.

RNA-based processes

Studies on RNA have a long tradition at Goethe University. Its interdisciplinary approach to better understand the folding world of RNA and thus RNA regulation is unique. The last 20 years have allowed us to find and exploit fundamental principles and mechanisms of RNA structure and regulation. The Collaborative Research Centre / Sonderforschungsbereich SFB 902 “Molecular Principles of RNA-based Regulation" promoted this work and has established links to neuroscience and drug discovery.

Membrane and organelle dynamics

The SFB 1507 “Membrane-associated Protein Assemblies, Machineries, and Supercomplexes" aims at an in-depth, quantitative understanding of the structure, dynamics and function of the eponymous, fundamental membrane-associated protein assemblies as a basis for deciphering corresponding cellular processes. One of the relevant goals, for instance, is to understand how membrane proteins organize themselves to control chemical reactions in overcrowded cells and trigger signals at the right place and time. In this very dense cellular environment, cell membranes are sub-compartmentalized via supramolecular assemblies and can directly communicate with each other via membrane contact sites. Interesting open questions include how dynamic membrane-associated assemblies are spatiotemporally organized, shaping cell homeostasis and architecture as they adapt to infection, malignant transformation, and a change in environment or stress.

Neuronal molecular and cellular architectures

The research focus Neuroscience, in collaboration with the MPI Brain Research, investigates funda-mental principles of neurons as information-processing cells, the regulation of neuronal connections, and the spatio-temporal dynamics of perception. In this context, the SFB 1080 “Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Neural Homeostasis“ focusses on homeostasis of the nervous system and how failure of homeostatic processes can lead to diseases. Additional scientific questions in this research focus are interconnections between the nervous and the vascular systems, as well as the role of RNA in neuronal plasticity. 

Light-based tools

Light-controlled processes in molecules and organisms are a unique feature at Goethe University. Optogenetics is now an excellently established field that uses genetically encoded, light-driven proteins to control membrane tension, fluxes of ions and messengers, gene expression, protein lifetimes, and programmed cell death with light. Medium-term goals are therapies for previously incurable neurological disorders and heart disease. The Goethe University-led DFG Priority Program SPP 1926 is dedicated to "Next Generation Optogenetics". In the chemically oriented DFG-Research Training Group / GRK 1986 "Complex Control with Light", new principles of light regulation are being investigated, ranging from theoretical predictions to synthetic realizations and spectroscopic characterizations all the way to applications in neurons and living organisms (part of SFB 902). The potential for the development of light-controlled drugs is not even assessable. In an emerging collaborative research project, approaches are being tested for intelligent probes that enable complex light microscopic analysis of their environment.

Structures in live cells

There has been break-through in Cryo-EM and Cryo-TM technological development that allow us to measure and observe living systems at an unprecedented resolution, albei at the cost of huge and complex data. The challenge now is to handle these large datasets and extract quantifiable parameters and basic principles, to then model these biological processes in the future. The appropriate training of PhD students is the focus of the GRK 2556 iMOL, which started in 2021. The large data sets, the precise descriptions and the analytically derivable numerical parameters offer the prerequisite for the use of machine learning and thus the chance to gain insights into biological mechanisms, which will go beyond the limits of our previous experience.

HMWK (Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and the Arts)