Press releases


Jan 2 2018

German Research Foundation awards further € 1.5 million for long-term project at Goethe University Frankfurt

Nok research project enters final phase

FRANKFURT. Goethe University Frankfurt can continue its study of the Nok Culture. The German Research Foundation has recently approved the funding application submitted by Professor Peter Breunig, Professor of African Archaeology, and Professor Katharina Neumann, Professor of African Archaeobotany. This means that an additional € 1.5 million are available to complete the project, which explores the 2,500-year-old West African culture.

The long-term project, which is designed to take a total of twelve years, has been examining all the main aspects of the Nigerian Nok Culture since 2009. The researchers from Frankfurt are working on site alongside their Nigerian colleagues and have also employed a large number of local helpers. At times, the project was the largest employer in the area. Surveys, excavations and extensive data analysis are making a significant contribution to deeper knowledge of chronology, settlement, land use and environment, iron metallurgy, material culture and geographical range.

Peter Breunig is very pleased about the merry pre-Christmas news that the project will be funded right through to the end: “It really is something very special for an archaeologist when you can conduct such extensive research over many years and with a large team thanks to such broad support.” The Nok project is outstanding in terms of content too: not many projects worldwide are set out to explore an entire archaeological culture.

The Nok Culture, which lasted for about 1,500 years and is named after the small village of Nok to the north-east of Abuja, the capital city, emerged around 1500 BC. This is also one of the things that the project has unearthed. At that time, the population lived in simple farming communities and its most important crop was pearl millet. The ornate terracotta figures, for which the Nok Culture is known outside the archaeological world too, emerged 600 years later, i.e. around 900 BC. Looting had already brought many to light before the Frankfurt researchers got to work – the statuettes are coveted objects on the international art market. “The fired clay sculptures represent the oldest and some of the largest examples of figurine art in sub-Saharan Africa,” explains Breunig.

What purpose did the terracottas serve, some of which portray people and others animals? What was their original function when they were made about 2,500 years ago? This has been one of the main questions over the last nine years. The researchers presumed that the figures played a role in burial rites. And indeed, at some sites they were able to locate features interpreted as graves near the terracottas, for example in Ifana where they found around 20. “The custom of making a clay effigy of a deceased dignitary and placing it on the grave still exists in West Africa today. When the figures have weathered, they are all buried together at the same spot,” say Professor Breunig. Perhaps it was the same back then.

The researchers have gained many other important insights besides that. “We know how the Nok people settled, what their pottery looked like, that it was travelling craftsmen who made the terracottas,” says Breunig. And thanks to close cooperation with archaeobotanist Professor Katharina Neumann, the researchers also know what they ate and how their surrounding landscape changed over the course of time. The decline of the Nok Culture began around 400 BC; terracottas and Nok ceramics finally disappeared at the latest by the birth of Christ.

After Breunig and a member of his team were kidnapped in February 2017, the team has returned to Africa only once and did not venture beyond the capital. “But we’ve finished our field research anyway. We’ve got enough to do in the next three years,” explains Breunig. The focus now is on the last remaining studies and publications on settlement, structure and chronology of the sites and the material culture as well as analysis, classification and long-term storage and accessibility of the data. In view of the extensive excavations, volume of data obtained, modern methods applied, countless carbon 14 dating results and the breadth of topics examined, the Nok Culture numbers - thanks to this project - amongst the most thoroughly investigated archaeological complexes in West Africa.

The archaeobotanical research work led by Professor Neumann also plays a prominent role in the project. Her objective is to design a model for vegetation development as well as resource and land use in the Nok region from the beginning of the Nok Culture around 1500 BC up until the first centuries AD. With the help of botanical macroremains and analysis of the chemical residues found in ceramics, her team is examining how the early Nok population adapted to a new habitat, how overexploitation in the Middle Nok period (900 to 400 BC) led to soil degradation and what role this might have played in the decline of the Nok Culture after 400 BC. 

The Research Unit “Ecological and Cultural Change in West and Central Africa” funded by the German Research Foundation had already conducted initial research work related to the project from 2005 onwards. The long-term project then entered its first phase shortly after the global conference on African archaeology at Goethe University Frankfurt in 2008, which was opened by Namadi Sambo, later vice-president of Nigeria. One of the highlights was undoubtedly the much acclaimed exhibition “Nok – African sculpture in archaeological context” in 2013/14 at the Liebieghaus Museum in Frankfurt, which was also financed by the German Research Foundation. Since this year, the exhibits are on display at Kaduna National Museum under the title “NOK Within the Context of Nigerian Art Traditions”. All materials which were brought to Frankfurt for research purposes are also returned to Nigeria.

Amongst others, a workshop is planned for the last phase of the project that aims to position Nok ceramics within a broader West African context. By comparing ceramics from other West African regions, the researchers hope to find further answers to the question of where the Nok people came from and how they lived.

Pictures and captions can be downloaded from

Further information: Professor Peter Breunig, Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Department of African Archaeology and Archaeobotany, Westend Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798-32094, email


Jan 2 2018

Professor Döll, hydrologist, gets to the bottom of global freshwater system / Legal scholars and economists explore how regulatory framework influences financial market

DFG supports two new research groups at Goethe University Frankfurt

FRANKFURT. The initiators behind two projects at Goethe University Frankfurt have every reason to be pleased: Their new research groups will benefit from German Research Foundation funds totalling € 1.9 million. Together with her team, Professor Petra Döll, hydrologist, will now be able to explore the global freshwater system in greater depth whilst Professor Tobias Tröger, legal scholar, and Professor Rainer Haselmann, economist, will join forces with fellow researchers to examine how regulatory parameters influence decisions in the financial sector.

“The two new research groups funded by the German Research Foundation show how Goethe University Frankfurt is tackling topics which are socially relevant and of global significance, such as the earth’s water resources and the effects of regulatory measures on market development,” says Professor Birgitta Wolff, the University’s president. “Congratulations to the researchers responsible, Petra Döll, Tobias Tröger and Rainer Haselmann, whose proposals were able to convince the German Research Foundation of the scientific quality of their projects.”

How water is distributed on our planet

The Research Unit “Understanding the Global Freshwater System by Combining Geodetic and Remote Sensing Information with Modelling Using Calibration/Data Assimilation Approach” (GlobalCDA), coordinated by Professor Petra Döll, hydrologist in Frankfurt, and Professor Jürgen Kusche, geodesist in Bonn, has set itself the task of quantifying water flows and water volumes on the earth’s continents more accurately in order to gain a deeper understanding of global water cycles. In fact, global hydrological models already exist, but the aim now is to include additional, satellite-based observation data. “In order to quantify more precisely how water is distributed worldwide, we need to develop a new method that lets us assimilate these data and use them to adjust model parameters,” says Professor Döll, who focuses on further developing the global hydrological WaterGAP that is suitable for estimating the current status and future development of the global freshwater system under human impacts.

Professor Döll has been working since 1996 on global-scale modelling of water resources and their use under the impact of global change. How much water is there in the ground? How much water is flowing in various rivers? And how much water is hidden in snow fields? “If we can understand the present status of water resources and know how water moves, how it is stored and what happens when there is little rainfall, then we are a big step further,” says Döll. Continental water flows play an important role for other aspects of the earth system. For example, groundwater depletion contributes to the global sea level rise. In a globalised world, a better understanding of the freshwater system worldwide would help to ensure sustainable water management (e.g., during droughts), but equally the sustainable production of food and energy. Seven groups from Germany are engaged in the project as well as one from Switzerland and another from Luxembourg. The German researchers will receive a total of about € 1.9 million for the first three years.

How markets react to new regulations

Under the title “Foundations of Law and Finance”, a Centre for Advanced Studies led by law professor Tobias Tröger and economics professor Rainer Haselmann will investigate how institutional and regulatory parameters influence financial market decisions and outcomes. The researchers want to take a closer look at the interconnections between legislation, economics and politics in this area and in so doing measure and evaluate the effects of legislative proposals and amendments on the real economy. “Our objective is not only to let the two disciplines of law and economics explore a common topic but also develop joint methodologies,” explains lawyer Tobias Tröger.

The project has evolved out of the LOEWE Centre “SAFE - Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe” at the House of Finance of Goethe University Frankfurt. Fellows from Germany and abroad were selected beforehand who are able and willing to engage in this type of methodologically synthesising research. According to Professor Tröger, SAFE and the House of Finance already provide the infrastructure necessary for such interdisciplinary cooperation and this makes them ideal hosts for the project. Specifically, the objective is to study the market impact of legislation adopted in response to the 2007/08 financial crisis as well as investigate how certain corporate governance arrangements affect company value. Exploring the political-economy determinants of different regulatory measures is another central topic addressed by the project. Tröger is convinced: “Our results will debunk the popular myth of a ‘simple explanation’”. In addition to the spokespersons, a further six professors from Goethe University Frankfurt will engage in the project over the initial four years, together with two postdoctoral researchers, eight junior fellows and 20 fellows. The German Research Foundation has granted funding to the tune of € 3.1 million for the first four years.

The German Research Foundation is currently setting up a total of eight new Research Units, a Clinical Research Unit and two Centres for Advanced Studies, for which around € 32 million will be available in the first phase. This funding enables researchers to look at current pressing issues in their field and adopt innovative approaches in their work. In this context, the Centres for Advanced Studies are specially tailored to working practices in the humanities, meaning that they can receive funding for two four-year periods, by contrast to research groups in general, where the German Research Foundation can fund research for two three-year periods.

Portrait photographs of the spokespersons can be downloaded from:

Caption: Professor Petra Döll (photo: private), Professor Tobias Tröger (photo: IMFS/Hannelore Förster), Professor Rainer Haselmann (photo: Oli Hege)

Further information:
Professor Petra Döll, Chair of Hydrology, Department of Physical Geography, Faculty of Geosciences and Geography, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798-40219, email

Professor Tobias Tröger, Chair of Civil, Commercial and Business Law, Institute of Civil and Business Law, Faculty of Law, Westend Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798-34391, email


Dec 19 2017

Economist with a broad range of interests

Leibniz Prize for Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln

FRANKFURT. Economist Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Professor of Macroeconomics and Development at Goethe University Frankfurt, has been awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2018 worth € 2.5 million. This was announced by the Joint Committee of the German Research Foundation (DFG) on 14 December in Bonn. Expressing her congratulations, Professor Birgitta Wolff, President of Goethe University Frankfurt, said: “This is a tremendous and deserved recognition of Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln’s extraordinarily successful scientific work. She plays a prominent role in Germany’s economics landscape and can already look back on an impressive international career. Her innovative research approach unites microeconomics and macroeconomics and she tackles topics and research objects which are at times rather unexpected for economists. Professor Fuchs-Schündeln is a real inspiration for many.”

How do the values of people who were socialized in the GDR differ from those of their fellow countrymen in the west? For example, years after the end of socialism, former GDR citizens still believed that the state should look after families, the elderly and the sick. Peoples’ preferences in the east and west of Germany are only gradually becoming aligned. The “Endogeneity of Preferences” is one of the research priorities of Professor Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, 45. Her paper on different values in east and west met with considerable international acclaim – especially because it has refuted the traditional assumption that economic preferences are innate and unchangeable, regardless of the economic system. Her work has triggered many other studies in this area and consolidated her reputation as a leading international expert. She is one of the most frequently cited researchers in this field.

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln’s research style is broad and interdisciplinary in her other areas of specialization too. For example, she is also dealing in depth with the saving, consumption and labour market behaviour of private households, where she is conducting empirical work to put the assumptions and predictions of fundamental economic theories to the test. One of the topics she has investigated in this context is what compels people to save money. Here she was able to use the situation that evolved following German reunification as the basis for her research: The dramatic economic upheaval in the east of the country allowed her to make clear theoretical forecasts and test them with data. Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln succeeded in corroborating a mostly rational consumption and saving behaviour over the entire lifespan, even in the face of major economic upheaval. Her recent work explores the question of why Europeans work less hours per year than US Americans and points to the tax system, which in her view plays a key role. Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln has also made significant contributions to analysing inequality trends in Germany as well as to the study of inner-European and inner-German migration and the long-term effects of a socialist school education on the labour market.

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln has been Professor of Macroeconomics and Development at Goethe University Frankfurt since 2009. She is engaged as Principal Investigator in the Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders” and as Programme Director at the LOEWE Centre “Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe”. In 2015/16 she spent a year at Stanford University, California, as visiting professor. Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln worked as an assistant professor at Harvard before joining Goethe University Frankfurt. She studied Latin American Studies and Economics in Cologne and earned her doctoral degree at Yale University.

The Leibniz Prize is not the first award for Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln: Last year she received the most important prize for German economists, the Gossen Award of the Verein für Socialpolitik, one of the largest professional economics associations in Europe. This award goes to German-speaking researchers whose work has earned an international reputation. The main benchmark here is publications in internationally recognized journals. She also received a Starting Grant from the European Research Council in 2010, one of the European Union’s most highly endowed research awards.

The financial support that the Leibniz Prize brings with it will allow Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln to further advance and expand her innovative research projects and bring more junior researchers to Goethe University Frankfurt.

Award winners can draw on the € 2.5 million in funding over a period of seven years and are flexible in how they use it. The objective of the Leibniz Programme, which was established in 1985, is to improve working conditions for outstanding researchers, enhance their research opportunities, relieve them of administrative tasks and help them employ particularly qualified junior researchers.

Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln is the 17th researcher from Goethe University Frankfurt to receive the Leibniz Prize: In 1986, both philosopher Jürgen Habermas as well as the later Nobel Prize laureate and biochemist Hartmut Michel received the coveted award. They were followed by historian Lothar Gall (1988), physicist Reinhard Stock (1989), legal historian Michael Stolleis (1991), mathematician Claus-Peter Schnorr (1993), physicist Theo Geisel (1994), chemist Christian Griesinger (1998), palaeontologist Volker Mosbrugger (1999), biologist Stefanie Dimmeler (2005), historian Bernhard Jussen (2007), economist Roman Inderst (2010), philosopher and political scientist Rainer Forst (2012), biochemist and physician Ivan Dikic (2013), jurist Armin von Bogdandy (2014) and ancient history scholar Hartmut Leppin (2015).

Further information: Professor Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Chair of Macroeconomics and Development, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 3, Westend Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69/798-33815, email:


Dec 18 2017

Researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt unveil the secret of the Blue Hole stalactite

In the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau

FRANKFURT. In 1970, a team led by French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau recovered an unusual stalactite from the depths of the famous Blue Hole in the Caribbean Sea. In the current issue of the “Journal of Sedimentary Research”, geoscientist Eberhard Gischler of Goethe University Frankfurt explains what it reveals about our climate since the last ice age.

At the time, Jacques Cousteau’s divers did not find any visible traces of living organisms in the mysterious Blue Hole. They did, however, find a large number of stalactites such as are known from karst caves. These are formed through the dissolution of limestone. Today the 125-metre-deep Blue Hole off the coast of Belize is flooded by the sea.

Frankfurt geoscientist Eberhard Gischler has been researching in Belize for over 25 years. He was given the unusual sample two years ago by Professor Robert Ginsburg at the University of Miami, with whom he worked in the 1990s as a postdoctoral researcher. Robert Ginsburg had in turn been given the stalactite by Jacques Cousteau immediately after it was found. Back then, he had the sample sawn into pieces and began to examine it together with marine geologist Bob Dill. Work did not, however, progress beyond a preliminary analysis. Added to this, the largest pieces of the stalactite went missing when the Ginsburg laboratory moved premises.

The cross section now being examined is the last specimen from Cousteau’s stalactite. After almost 50 years, when the Blue Hole stalactite was in danger of being forgotten, Gischler, together with physicists from Goethe University Frankfurt and colleagues from the universities of Mainz, Hamburg and El Paso (USA) as well as GEOMAR in Kiel, has unveiled its secret.

By contrast to most stalactites, the outer layers of the Blue Hole stalactite are composed of marine deposits. Its concentric layers allow a detailed reconstruction of the climate in the late Pleistocene and the Holocene (the period from about 20,000 years ago to the present day). For example, the core formed during freshwater influx indicates surprisingly dry conditions during the Last Glacial Maximum and the following period (approximately 20,000 to 12,000 years before our time). The marine layers formed when the karst cave and the stalactite were flooded after the ice age by rising sea levels, i.e. over the last 11,000 years.

“Detailed climate reconstruction is, however, rendered difficult by the fact that the stalactite layers formed both on land as well as in seawater developed under the influence of microbial activity,” explains Eberhard Gischler. The researchers are now decoding the types of microbial activity that influenced calcium precipitation during the stalactite’s formation. On the basis of this study, it will be possible in future to make better use of the potential that stalactites with a complex formation history offer for the reconstruction of paleo-environmental conditions.

Together with doctoral researcher Dominik Schmitt, Gischler is currently working on other deposits in the shape of sediment drill cores up to 9 metres long, which were extracted from the floor of the Blue Hole in August. The sludge-like bottom sediment from the Blue Hole shows fine annual layering and will be used as a high-resolution storm and climate archive.

Shown in the picture is a cross section of the remarkable “Cousteau Stalactite”, which was originally 2.84 metres long and weighed about a ton. It can meanwhile be found at the Department of Geosciences of Goethe University Frankfurt.

A picture as well as the cover of the “Journal of Sedimentary Research” with an aerial photograph of the Blue Hole can be downloaded from:

Caption: Professor Eberhard Gischler and his doctoral researcher Dominik Schmitt with the last piece of the stalactite recovered from the Blue Hole by Jacques Cousteau in 1970. Photo: Daniel Parwareschnia.

Film about Jacques Cousteau’s recovery of the stalactite from the Blue Hole: 

Publication: E. Gischler et al.: A giant underwater, encrusted stalactite from the Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef, Belize, revisited: A complex history of biologically induced carbonite accretion under changing meteoric and marine conditions, in Journal of Sedimentary Research, 2017, Vol. 87, 1260-1284.

Further information: Professor Dr. Eberhard Gischler, Department of Geosciences, Faculty of Geosciences and Geography, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798-40183,


Dec 12 2017

Design and biotechnological production of new peptide-based active ingredients

New active ingredients from the toolbox

FRANKFURT. Microorganisms often produce natural products in a step-by-step manner similar to an assembly line. Examples of such enzymes are non-ribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPS). Researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt have now succeeded in designing these enzymes in such a way that they can produce completely new natural products.

Many important therapeutics, such as antibiotics or immunosuppressant and anti-cancer drugs, are derived from microorganisms. This is also the case for several different peptides which are produced in the microbial cell with the help of the NRPS enzymes. An NRPS functions like an assembly line in a modern car factory: new parts are added to the basic chassis at each workstation until a finished car rolls out of the plant at the end. In the case of the NRPS, a certain amino acid is selected, activated and processed at each station (known as modules) so that linear, cyclic or further modified peptides emerge at the end that can also carry unusual amino acids.

Although the fundamental principles of NRPS are long known, to date it was hardly possible to modify these enzymes. In the few cases where single modules were successfully exchanged, production of the modified natural products noticeably decreased. Assembling completely new enzymes, which in turn would produce completely new natural products, seemed totally impossible. The research group led by Professor Helge Bode, Merck Endowment Professor for Molecular Biotechnology at Goethe University Frankfurt, has now achieved this. 

“In principle, we use natural NRPS systems from bacteria only as building blocks which we reassemble in a new way using new interfaces we’ve identified,” says Bode, explaining the research approach. Yields are comparable with the natural production of these natural substances.

The method is meanwhile so sophisticated that even beginners can use it to produce new peptides and thus potential drugs shortly after a basic introduction. However, it has been a long road. “I was lucky that I had a team working with me on this project that did not allow itself to become discouraged, was very diligent and able to think outside the box,” says Bode. “The interface we finally selected to assemble the individual building blocks is such that the classical modular order of the biosynthesis is no longer respected.”

The next step is to modify first clinical drugs with this method and use biotechnology to produce them. Moreover, new information regarding the structure of these NRPS will be gathered as part of the LOEWE research focus MegaSyn led by Bode and Professor Martin Grininger, also from Goethe University Frankfurt. This will make it possible to further improve the method in order to allow the modification of related classes of natural products or even to produce whole libraries of natural products. First results are very promising.


Kenan A. J. Bozhüyük, Florian Fleischhacker, Annabell Linck, Frank Wesche, Andreas Tietze, Claus-Peter Niesert, Helge B. Bode: De novo design and engineering of non-ribosomal peptide synthetases, Nature Chemistry,, DOI: 10.1038/nchem.2890

A picture can be downloaded from:

Caption: Schematic diagram of the “toolbox system” of the NRPS enzymes for the production of new active ingredients. Fragments from natural systems (green, magenta, blue) are reassembled in a new order (centre) and then produce a natural product which has not formed like this in nature before (right).

Further information: Professor Helge B. Bode, Merck Endowment Professor for Molecular Biotechnology, Faculty of Biological Sciences, Riedberg Campus, Tel.: +49(0)69-798- 29557,