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Dec 9 2019

In the “South Hesse Oak Project” (SHOP), Frankfurt biologists explore how climate change is damaging indigenous trees

Preventing forest decline

FRANKFURT. In the framework of the “South Hesse Oak Project” (SHOP), researchers from the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity at Goethe University are searching for new strategies to counteract the formation of steppe habitats out of woodlands, which is to be feared as a result of climate change in dry areas in South Hesse. They have now presented first strategic recommendations.

 Summers in Central Europe are becoming hotter, summer rainfall less and droughts longer and more frequent. Climate change is altering weather patterns and having an impact on woodlands in the process. Where water supply is at present still good, climate change is expected to lead to only a moderate shift in species composition towards varieties that can cope better with drought in the medium term. Woodlands which, however, are already growing in extreme conditions with poor water supply today will not survive future droughts unharmed. This can already be seen in a large part of Frankfurt City Forest, where as a result of the 2018/19 droughts a total of 97 per cent of all trees are damaged. That is why researchers from the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity at Goethe University are exploring in the “South Hesse Oak Project” (SHOP) which strategies can counteract the loss of woodlands, in order to preserve them as a habitat characterised by rich biodiversity and as a CO2 store despite rapidly advancing climate change.

They have now presented first strategic recommendations:

  • Mildly affected areas, where water supply will remain sufficient in future, are in principle able to defy climate change without anthropogenic intervention through natural regeneration of the tree population, climatic selection of individual varieties and adjustment of species composition.
  • For moderately affected areas where increasing drought damage is to be expected, targeted reforestation with drought-resistant endemic tree varieties, such as sessile oak or Scots pine, is a suitable approach. 
  • In strongly affected regions, such as the sandy ground in the Rhine-Main area, it is necessary to plant varieties from drier climate zones. Mediterranean varieties or species are possible here, as are ones from overseas.

The “Ecophysiology of Plants” working group at Goethe University began studying Mediterranean oak species as long ago as 2007. In 2009 at the start of the LOEWE “Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre” (BiK-F), the project born out of it – “The Forest of the Future” – was rewarded with the “Landmark in the Land of Ideas” innovation prize. Out of this project, SHOP developed in 2011 in cooperation with external partners.

The project is concerned with the introduction of Mediterranean oaks as alternative tree species. “Here in Germany, pedunculate oak is one of the ecologically most important forest trees,” says Wolfgang Brüggemann, biology professor and head of SHOP. “However, it frequently grows in extremely dry areas and will therefore be particularly severely affected by climate change.” Alternative tree species must not only be more resistant to drought than pedunculate oaks but also endure the winters here, which today are still cold. An important aspect for the researchers is that these tree species can also take on the ecological functions of the ones lost. “In order not to weaken the ecosystems further, it’s important to maintain biodiversity,” says Vera Holland, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity.

In the framework of SHOP – and the “Futureoaks-IKYDA” collaborative project developed out of it in 2017 with partners from Italy and Greece – between 2009 and 2017 the researchers planted more than 10,000 oaks at four sites in South Hesse as well as in Greece and Italy. They have studied their growth, physiology, ecological potential and molecular biology over many years. The results of their research work substantiate that some Mediterranean oaks have excellent potential for being planted as alternative tree species in strongly affected areas, for example the downy oak (Quercus pubescens) or – under certain conditions – the evergreen holm oak (Quercus ilex).

“On the basis of model-assisted forecasts, a shift in the distribution ranges of Mediterranean species in the direction of Central Europe as a result of climate change has already been predicted for years,” says Vera Holland. “However, climate change is advancing far more rapidly than the natural immigration of these varieties can firstly keep pace with and secondly fill the holes quickly enough that are caused by extreme weather events. The introduction of the Mediterranean species propagated by us via assisted migration would bridge this process and thus preclude the loss of woodland, a major drop in CO2 storage and accelerated soil erosion in deforested areas,” she says.

Further information: Professor Wolfgang Brüggemann, Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity, Faculty of Biological Sciences, Riedberg Campus, +49(0)69-79842192,


Dec 9 2019

Researchers at Goethe University find sequences in the DNA of oaks that could make the trees more resistant to drought

Genes against drought

FRANKFURT. Climate change is leading to a decrease in soil moisture and an increase in severe droughts in Europe that adversely affect its woodlands. For a long time now, forest conservationists have been thinking very carefully about which trees they should use for reforestation. Researchers from the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity at Goethe University have now identified genes in oaks which could make the trees more resistant to drought. Their results have been published in the journal “Plant Gene".

In their study, the biologists examined the genes of three different oak species:

The local pedunculate oak and two southern European oaks – the downy oak and the holm oak.  At the time of the study, the trees, which were provided by Darmstädter Forstbaumschule GmbH, a local arboretum, were nine years old. They were subjected to drought stress under controlled conditions in Goethe University's Scientific Garden. When analysing their results, the researchers paid particular attention to twelve genes that had been identified in preceding studies as potentially important for drought resistance.

In contrast to previous studies, where in most cases only one sample was analysed after a short period of drought, the researchers examined the trees and their genes over the course of two years. They took samples eight times, analysed them and watched how actively the twelve genes were read and transformed into gene products. In this way, they produced expression profiles for the individual DNA sequences. In the case of some genes, they were able to verify previous findings for herbaceous plants, which indicated that the genes are expressed more frequently in periods of extreme drought. For other genes, this mechanism was not previously known.

“If we know how different tree varieties react to drought at molecular level, we can better understand the impact of climate change on Europe's forests," says Peter Kotrade, the study's first author and biologist from the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity at the Faculty of Biological Sciences of Goethe University. “Our study confirms previous results from model plants for the first time in forest trees and also shows detailed expression profiles for the selected genes. This helps us to understand the molecular reaction of oaks to drought: Knowledge that could be used in the future to select which trees to use for establishing forest plantations and for reforestation," he continues.


Further information: Peter Kotrade, M.Sc., Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity, Faculty of Biological Sciences, Riedberg Campus, +49(0)69-79842188,


Dec 5 2019

Researchers at Goethe University develop new protoeomics procedure

Detailed insight into stressed cells

FRANKFURT. When cells are stressed, they initiate a complex and precisely regulated response to prevent permanent damage. One of the immediate reactions to stress signals is a reduction of protein synthesis (translation). Until now, it was difficult to measure such acute cellular changes. As reported in the latest online issue of the renowned journal Molecular Cell, researchers at Goethe University have now developed a method overcoming this hurdle.

The team led by biochemist Dr. Christian Münch, who heads an Emmy Noether Group, employs a simple but extremely effective trick: when measuring all proteins in the mass spectrometer, a booster channel is added to specifically enhance the signal of newly synthesised proteins to enable their measurement. Thus, acute changes in protein synthesis can now be tracked by state-of-the-art quantitative mass spectrometry.

The idea emerged because the team wanted to understand how specific stress signals influence protein synthesis. "Since the amount of newly produced proteins within a brief time interval is rather small, the challenge was to record minute changes of very small percentages for each individual protein," comments group leader Münch. The newly developed analysis method now provides his team with detailed insight into the molecular events that ensure survival of stressed cells. The cellular response to stress plays an important role in the pathogenesis of many human diseases, including cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. An understanding of the underlying molecular processes opens the door for the development of new therapeutic strategies.

"The method we developed enables highly precise time-resolved measurements. We can now analyse acute cellular stress responses, i.e, those taking place within minutes. In addition, our method requires little material and is extremely cost-efficient," Münch explains. "This helps us to quantify thousands of proteins simultaneously in defined time spans after a specific stress treatment." Due to the small amount of material required, measurements can also be carried out in patient tissue samples, facilitating collaborations with clinicians. At a conference on Proteostatis (EMBO) in Portugal, PhD student Kevin Klann was recently awarded with a FEBS journal poster prize for his presentation of the first data produced using the new method. The young molecular biologist demonstrated for the first time that two of the most important cellular signaling pathways, which are triggered by completely different stress stimuli, ultimately results in the same effects on protein synthesis. This discovery is a breakthrough in the field.

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) as part of Starting Grant "MitoUPR", which was awarded to Münch for studying quality control mechanisms for mitochondrial proteins. In addition, Christian Münch has received funding within the German Research Foundation's (DFG, Deutsche Forschungsmeinschaft) Emmy Noether Programme and is a member of the Johanna Quandt Young Academy at Goethe. Since December 2016, he has built up a group on "Protein Quality Control" at the Institute for Biochemistry II at Goethe University's Medical Faculty, following his stay in one of the leading proteomic laboratories at Harvard University.

Further information:
Dr. Christian Münch, Institute for Biochemistry II, Faculty of Medicine, Goethe University, Tel.: +49 69 6301-6599,

Klann K, Tascher G, Münch C. Functional translatome proteomics reveal converging and dose-dependent regulation by mTORC1 and eIF2α. Molecular Cell 77, 1-13, Feb 20, 2020.


Nov 29 2019

Early career researcher Stephanie Döpper awarded funding by Gerda Henkel Foundation to study abandoned mud-brick settlements in Oman

Frankfurt archaeologists investigate “Lost Cities” in Oman

FRANKFURT. Goethe University is sending researchers to Oman: As the Gerda Henkel Foundation has announced, Dr. Stephanie Döpper will receive funds of almost € 300,000 for the duration of three years in the framework of its “Lost Cities" programme.

 In Oman, the economic upturn of the past three decades thanks to oil and gas production has also had an impact on housing construction. In many cases, people have moved out of their traditional mud-brick settlements into new concrete houses nearby, yet without completely abandoning the original settlements: High time to preserve this cultural landscape. Stephanie Döpper is head of an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, Islamic studies researchers and cultural sociologists from Frankfurt, Bochum and Leipzig. Together, they want to find out what social relevance the abandoned mud-brick settlements have for today's society and for creating Oman's identity.

To this end, the archaeologists in the project will be responsible over the coming years for mapping three mud-brick settlements in Central Oman and documenting the history of their buildings. This will take place in the framework of research visits lasting several months. In addition, by examining the artefacts they find, such as ceramic shards, they will be able to identify the former functions of the individual buildings in these settlements. Of particular significance here are their later uses, for example the repurposing of a house as a goat shed. The research team's hypothesis is that the abandoned mud-brick settlements are not only the deserted backdrops of a past way of life but instead still very lively and bustling places with a future.

Dr. Stephanie Döpper has been studying settlements and settlement systems in Central Oman for several years now, starting from the early Bronze Age in the 3rd millennium BC up until the mud-brick settlements in the research project approved by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, which were probably built in the 18th or 19th century AD and are today abandoned. In the back of her mind is always the question of what caused people in this region to settle and why such settlements were abandoned again.

Funding from the Gerda Henkel Foundation will make it possible to finance a doctoral scholarship and the research visits on site.

In total, the foundation has included 53 new research projects in its sponsorship programme, for which its committees approved € 8.6 million at their autumn meeting. This means support for researchers from almost 30 countries.

Pictures can be downloaded under:

Picture 1: House in the abandoned mud-brick settlement of Al-Mudhaybi. Photo: Stephanie Döpper
Picture 2: Ceramic vessels in the abandoned mud-brick settlement of Al-Mudhaybi. Photo: Stephanie Döpper
Picture 3: House with collapsed ceilings in the abandoned mud-brick settlement of Sinaw.
Picture 4: Abandoned mud-brick settlement of Sinaw. Photo: Stephanie Döpper
Picture 5: Abandoned mud-brick settlement of Sinaw. Photo: Stephanie Döpper

All pictures courtesy of Stephanie Döpper.

Further information: Dr. Stephanie Döpper, Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Archaeology, Westend Campus, Norbert-Wollheim-Platz 1, D-60629 Frankfurt am Main, +49(0)69-798-32320,


Nov 27 2019

Prolongation of Collaborative Research Centre on selective autophagy led by Goethe University

Millions for research into cellular quality control

FRANKFURT. Four years ago, Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1177 on selective autophagy was established under the leadership of Goethe University – now the German Research Foundation has given the green light for its further funding. A total of over € 12 million has been approved for the period up until 2023. Partners alongside Goethe University are the universities of Mainz, Munich, Tübingen and Freiburg, the Georg Speyer Haus and the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt as well as the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz.

Selective autophagy is part of the cell's waste disposal system. With its help, defective or potentially damaging cellular components are degraded and recycled. It plays a central role in maintaining cellular homeostasis and fulfils important functions in ageing and developmental processes. Errors in this system contribute to cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and infections. The objective of the research alliance is a better understanding of autophagy at molecular and cellular level in order to be able in future to counteract imbalances in the system. CRC 1177 is the first consortium in Germany to tackle this important topic systematically.

“This is very good news for Goethe University," said Professor Birgitta Wolff, President of Goethe University. Thanks to this CRC, Frankfurt has become a national hub for autophagy research over the past four years. Especially through the integration of new partners in Munich, Tübingen and Freiburg and at the MPI for Biophysics, it has been possible to substantially strengthen the existing partnership between Mainz (IMB/JGU) and Frankfurt (GSH/GU). We expect this research alliance to advance autophagy research significantly, which will help in the fight against many diseases," said the President.

Autophagy is found from simple organisms, such as yeasts, up to humans. The underlying molecular mechanisms are always similar: Cellular components that need to be removed are recognized in a highly specific manner, enveloped by membranes and degraded. This is how, for example, aggregated proteins are destroyed that would otherwise cause severe damage and trigger cell death. This can especially be observed in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, where toxic protein aggregates accumulate which then promote the massive destruction of nerve cells. Apart from proteins, autophagy can also target defective cell organelles and pathogens for removal. The cell can reutilize the recovered material as building blocks for synthesizing new components, which is why autophagy is also an important survival strategy in times of need.

Autophagy is a very complex process which must be precisely regulated and is greatly dependent on the cellular context. Its analysis requires state-of-the-art technologies, the integration of a wide variety of data and close collaboration between researchers from different disciplines. “We will focus on novel concepts in autophagy research and its impact on major biological processes as well as pathogenesis and therapy of human diseases," explains Professor Ivan Dikic, CRC spokesperson and Director of the Institute of Biochemistry II at Goethe University. “Our vision includes close interactions between basic and translational research via centrally supported technology platforms."

The platforms with their ultramodern equipment are a key factor in the research alliance's success: Since 2016, over 20 scientific publications have been produced in cooperation with the proteomics platform alone. In the second funding period, centrally available technologies will be significantly extended to include modelling and simulation methods, genomic and chemical high-throughput screening, and imaging methods to quantify autophagy in model organisms. Another equally important matter within the consortium is support for early career researchers. To this end, the Research Training Group set up in the first funding period will be continued. “Training the next generation of autophagy researchers is a matter close to our hearts and for this reason we've planned a diverse and advanced training programme," said Dikic.

Participating in the CRC on the part of Goethe University – in addition to its faculties of Biological Sciences, Biochemistry, Chemistry and Pharmacy, and Medicine – is the Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences.

Further information: Dr. Kerstin Koch, Institute of Biochemistry II, Faculty of Medicine, Goethe University, Tel.: +49(0)69- 6301-84250,