Press releases


Nov 12 2020

Synthetic vesicles are mini-laboratories for customised molecules

Researchers at Goethe University create artificial cell organelles for biotechnology 

Cells of higher organisms use cell organelles to separate metabolic processes from each other. This is how cell respiration takes place in the mitochondria, the cell's power plants. They can be compared to sealed laboratory rooms in the large factory of the cell. A research team at Goethe University has now succeeded in creating artificial cell organelles and using them for their own devised biochemical reactions.

FRANKFURT. Biotechnologists have been attempting to “reprogram" natural cell organelles for other processes for some time – with mixed results, since the “laboratory equipment" is specialised on the function of organelles. Dr Joanna Tripp, early career researcher at the Institute for Molecular Biosciences has now developed a new method to produce artificial organelles in living yeast cells (ACS Synthetic Biology:

To this end, she used the ramified system of tubes and bubbles in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) that surrounds the nucleus.  Cells continually tie off bubbles, or vesicles, from this membrane system in order to transport substances to the cell membrane. In plants, these vesicles may also be used for the storage of proteins in seeds. These storage proteins are equipped with an “address label" – the Zera sequence – which guides them to the ER and which ensures that storage proteins are “packaged" there in the vesicle. Joanna Tripp has now used the “address label" Zera to produce targeted vesicles in yeast cells and introduce several enzymes of a biochemical metabolic pathway.

This represents a milestone from a biotechnical perspective. Yeast cells, the “pets" of synthetic biology not only produce numerous useful natural substances, but can also be genetically changed to produce industrially interesting molecules on a grand scale, such as biofuels or anti-malaria medicine.

In addition to the desired products, however, undesirable by-products or toxic intermediates often occur as well. Furthermore, the product can be lost due to leaks in the cell, or reactions can be too slow. Synthetic cell organelles offer remedies, with only the desired enzymes (with “address labels") encountering each other, so that they work together more effectively without disrupting the rest of the cell, or being disrupted themselves.

“We used the Zera sequence to introduce a three-stage, synthetic metabolic pathway into vesicles," Joanna Tripp explains. “We have thus created a reaction space containing exactly what we want. We were able to demonstrate that the metabolic pathway in the vesicles functions in isolation to the rest of the cell."

The biotechnologist selected an industrially relevant molecule for this process: muconic acid, which is further processed industrially to adipic acid. This is an intermediate for nylon and other synthetic materials. Muconic acid is currently won from raw oil. A future large-scale production using yeast cells would be significantly more environment-friendly and sustainable. Although a portion of the intermediate protocatechuic acid is lost because the vesicle membrane is porous, Joanna Tripp views this as a solvable problem.

Professor Eckhard Boles, Head of the Department of Physiology and Genetics of Lower Eukaryotes observes: “This is a revolutionary new method of synthetic biology. With the novel artificial organelles, we now have the option of generating various processes in the cell anew, or to optimise them." The method is not limited to yeast cells, but can be utilised for eukaryotic cells in general. It can also be applied to other issues, e.g. for reactions that have previously not been able to take place in living cells because they may require enzymes that would disrupt the cell metabolic process.

Publication: Mara Reifenrath, Mislav Oreb, Eckhard Boles, Joanna Tripp: Artificial ER-Derived Vesicles as Synthetic Organelles for in Vivo Compartmentalization of Biochemical Pathways, in:
ACS Synthetic Biology:

Further information:
Dr. Joanna Tripp
Institute for Molecular Biosciences
Goethe University Frankfurt
Tel.: + 49 69 798 29516


Nov 3 2020

Neanderthals introduced solid food in their children’s diet at around 5-6 months of age

Just like us - Neanderthal children grew and were weaned similar to us

Neanderthals behaved not so differently from us in raising their children, whose pace of growth was similar to Homo sapiens. Thanks to the combination of geochemical and histological analyses of three Neanderthal milk teeth, researchers were able to determine their pace of growth and the weaning onset time. These teeth belonged to three different Neanderthal children who have lived between 70,000 and 45,000 years ago in a small area of northeastern Italy.

FRANKFURT/KENT/BOLOGNA/FERRARA. Teeth grow and register information in form of growth lines, akin to tree rings, that can be read through histological techniques. Combining such information with chemical data obtained with a laser-mass spectrometer, in particular strontium concentrations, the scientists were able to show that these Neanderthals introduced solid food in their children's diet at around 5-6 months of age.

Not cultural but physiological

Alessia Nava (University of Kent, UK), co-first author of the work, says: “The beginning of weaning relates to physiology rather than to cultural factors. In modern humans, in fact, the first introduction of solid food occurs at around 6 months of age when the child needs a more energetic food supply, and it is shared by very different cultures and societies. Now, we know that also Neanderthals started to wean their children when modern humans do".

“In particular, compared to other primates" says Federico Lugli (University of Bologna), co-first author of the work “it is highly conceivable that the high energy demand of the growing human brain triggers the early introduction of solid foods in child diet".

Neanderthals are our closest cousins within the human evolutionary tree. However, their pace of growth and early life metabolic constraints are still highly debated within the scientific literature.

Stefano Benazzi (University of Bologna), co-senior author, says: “This work's results imply similar energy demands during early infancy and a close pace of growth between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Taken together, these factors possibly suggest that Neanderthal newborns were of similar weight to modern human neonates, pointing to a likely similar gestational history and early-life ontogeny, and potentially shorter inter-birth interval".

Home, sweet home

Other than their early diet and growth, scientists also collected data on the regional mobility of these Neanderthals using time-resolved strontium isotope analyses.

“They were less mobile than previously suggested by other scholars" says Wolfgang Müller (Goethe University Frankfurt), co-senior author “the strontium isotope signature registered in their teeth indicates in fact that they have spent most of the time close to their home: this reflects a very modern mental template and a likely thoughtful use of local resources".

“Despite the general cooling during the period of interest, Northeastern Italy has almost always been a place rich in food, ecological variability and caves, ultimately explaining survival of Neanderthals in this region till about 45,000 years ago" says Marco Peresani (University of Ferrara), co-senior author and responsible for findings from archaeological excavations at sites of De Nadale and Fumane.

This research adds a new piece in the puzzling pictures of Neanderthal, a human species so close to us but still so enigmatic. Specifically, researchers exclude that the Neanderthal small population size, derived in earlier genetic analyses, was driven by differences in weaning age, and that other biocultural factors led to their demise. This will be further investigated within the framework of the ERC project SUCCESS ('The Earliest Migration of Homo sapiens in Southern Europe - Understanding the biocultural processes that define our uniqueness'), led by Stefano Benazzi at University of Bologna.

Publication: Alessia Nava, Federico Lugli, Matteo Romandini, Federica Badino, David Evans, Angela H. Helbling, Gregorio Oxilia, Simona Arrighi, Eugenio Bortolini, Davide Delpiano, Rossella Duches, Carla Figus, Alessandra Livraghi, Giulia Marciani, Sara Silvestrini, Anna Cipriani, Tommaso Giovanardi, Roberta Pini, Claudio Tuniz, Federico Bernardini, Irene Dori, Alfredo Coppa, Emanuela Cristiani, Christopher Dean, Luca Bondioli, Marco Peresani, Wolfgang Müller, Stefano Benazzi, Early life of Neanderthals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2020, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2011765117

Picture downloads:

1. Fumane Cave near Verona (Wikipedia): This is where several of the milk teeth of Neanderthal children investigated by Professor Wolfgang Müller at Goethe University were found.

2. Neanderthal milk teeth: Presumably a Neanderthal child lost this tooth 40,000 to 70,000 year ago when his or her permanent teeth came in. Credit: ERC project SUCCESS, University of Bologna, Italy

3. Ultra-thin cut: Researchers at Goethe University cut paper-thin slices off of a Neanderthal milk tooth. The teeth are subsequently put back together and reconstructed. Credit/video still: Luca Bondioli and Alessia Nava, Rome, Italy

Further information:

Professor Wolfgang Müller
Institute for Geosciences /
Frankfurt Isotope and Element Research Center (FIERCE)
Tel. +49 (0)69 798 40291,


Oct 26 2020

Film and media scholars at Goethe University Frankfurt dissect the new media world of the pandemic 

Of drones, dating-apps and Trump’s COVID strategy

With the onset of the current pandemic, our lives have become more digital and more mediatized than ever before. But how can we understand this transformation, and how can we envision our lives in this “new“ media world? A new publication edited by a group of media scholars working in Frankfurt offers a glimpse of some of the research questions and challenges to come.

FRANKFURT. The current pandemic poses a particular challenge for film and media scholars. COVID-19 changes not just their work routines but transforms their very object of study: the media. “As a consequence of the pandemic, we have to adapt ourselves to new conditions of producing, accessing, consuming, sharing, and deploying media for the flow of information, labor, goods, policies, and culture”, says Laliv Melamed, post-doc researcher in the Graduate Research Training Program “Konfigurationen des Films” ( Together with her colleague Phillipp Keidl, Melamed has initiated and co-edited the collection “Pandemic Media”, which appears as an open access publication this week.

“‘Pandemic Media‘ is an attempt to meet the challenges of the pandemic with a series of flashlight essays which address current and future research questions in media studies”, says professor Vinzenz Hediger, project director of “Konfigurationen des Films”. In that spirit, the publication’s subtitles is “Preliminary Notes Towards an Inventory”.

“Pandemic Media“ brings together 37 contributions from the scientific network of “Konfiguration des Films” – a network that is truly global. Contributors include researchers working at universities in New York, Stanford, Toronto, Seattle, Oxford, London, Lagos, Utrecht, Frankfurt, Weimar or Paris. The diversity of the contributors is reflected in the variety of their topics and perspectives: These include the now ubiquitous drone images, the split-screen aesthetics of video conferencing software, dating apps, Trump’s television strategy against COVID, visualisations of the virus or the development and implementation of the COVID tracing app in Germany.

The publication’s cover is based on the current work of MAGNUM photographer Antoine D’Agata, who has been documenting the impact of the pandemic in Paris streets and hospitals with a heat sensor camera. D’Agata’s eerily suggestive images, which are on display at the Brownstone Foundation in Paris until the end of October, are also the subject of one the contributions to the volume.

Among “Pandemic Media”‘s innovations is the digital open access publication strategy, which allowed the editors to put the project in the short space of four months.  All contributions underwent a two-step double blind peer review process. The project director of “Konfigurationen des Films“ and Professor Antonio Somaini, who teaches at Université Paris-3 and is also a partner of Goethe University in the International Master Cinema Studies (IMACS, serve as co-editors.

The publication date for the 37 contributions and the introduction is 28 October 2020. “Pandemic Media“ is the latest volume in the „Configurations of film“ series published by meson press. The full publication can be accessed here:, first in html format, later as PDF files for download. The publication will be available in book form in time for the holidays.

Meson press is an innovative new publisher specializing in open access publications on digital media culture. “From our point of view, ‘Pandemic Media’ is an exciting pilot project”, comments Andreas Kirchner, co-founder and co-director of meson press. “Not only does the volume perfectly fit our profile, it offers us an opportunity to experiment with groundbreaking new publication formats.”

The Graduate Research Training Program “Konfigurationen des Films“, which is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), has been studying the digital transformation of film culture since 2017. This summer, the second cohort of 12 doctoral candidates has assumed their positions and started their research projects.

Publication: „Pandemic Media. Preliminary Notes Towards an Inventory“, published by Vinzenz Hediger, Philipp Keidl, Laliv Melamed und Antonio Somaini

Images to download: 

Caption: The temperature of the pandemic: The book cover is based on a photo by Magnum photographer Antoine D’Agata, who has been documenting Parisian street scenes and processes in hospitals with a heat-sensitive camera since April (Foto: Cover (c) meson press/Mathias Bär/Antoine D’Agata)

Further information:

Dr. Philipp Keidl
Graduate Research Training Program „Konfigurationen des Films“

Dr. Laliv Melamed,
Graduate Research Training Program „Konfigurationen des Films“

Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Hediger
Speaker of the Graduate Research Training Program „Konfigurationen des Films“


Oct 16 2020

​Physicists from Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin track the propagation of light in a molecule

Zeptoseconds: New world record in short time measurement

In the global race to measure ever shorter time spans, physicists from Goethe University Frankfurt have now taken the lead: together with colleagues at the accelerator facility DESY in Hamburg and the Fritz-Haber-Institute in Berlin, they have measured a process that lies within the realm of zeptoseconds for the first time: the propagation of light within a molecule. A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second (10-21 seconds).

FRANKFURT. In 1999, the Egyptian chemist Ahmed Zewail received the Nobel Prize for measuring the speed at which molecules change their shape. He founded femtochemistry using ultrashort laser flashes: the formation and breakup of chemical bonds occurs in the realm of femtoseconds. A femtosecond equals 0.000000000000001 seconds, or 10-15 seconds.

Now atomic physicists at Goethe University in Professor Reinhard Dörner's team have for the first time studied a process that is shorter than femtoseconds by magnitudes. They measured how long it takes for a photon to cross a hydrogen molecule: about 247 zeptoseconds for the average bond length of the molecule. This is the shortest timespan that has been successfully measured to date.

The scientists carried out the time measurement on a hydrogen molecule (H2) which they irradiated with X-rays from the synchrotron lightsource PETRA III at the Hamburg accelerator centre DESY. The researchers set the energy of the X-rays so that one photon was sufficient to eject both electrons out of the hydrogen molecule.

Electrons behave like particles and waves simultaneously, and therefore the ejection of the first electron resulted in electron waves launched first in the one, and then in the second hydrogen molecule atom in quick succession, with the waves merging.

The photon behaved here much like a flat pebble that is skimmed twice across the water: when a  wave trough meets a wave crest, the waves of the first and second water contact cancel each other, resulting in what is called an interference pattern.

The scientists measured the interference pattern of the first ejected electron using the COLTRIMS reaction microscope, an apparatus that Dörner helped develop and which makes ultrafast reaction processes in atoms and molecules visible. Simultaneously with the interference pattern, the COLTRIMS reactions microscope also allowed the determination of the orientation of the hydrogen molecule. The researchers here took advantage of the fact that the second electron also left the hydrogen molecule, so that the remaining hydrogen nuclei flew apart and were detected.
“Since we knew the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference of the two electron waves to precisely calculate when the photon reached the first and when it reached the second hydrogen atom," explains Sven Grundmann whose doctoral dissertation forms the basis of the scientific article in Science. “And this is up to 247 zeptoseconds, depending on how far apart in the molecule the two atoms were from the perspective of light."

Professor Reinhard Dörner adds: “We observed for the first time that the electron shell in a molecule does not react to light everywhere at the same time. The time delay occurs because information within the molecule only spreads at the speed of light. With this finding we have extended our COLTRIMS technology to another application."

Publication: Sven Grundmann, Daniel Trabert, Kilian Fehre, Nico Strenger, Andreas Pier, Leon Kaiser, Max Kircher, Miriam Weller, Sebastian Eckart, Lothar Ph. H. Schmidt, Florian Trinter, Till Jahnke, Markus S. Schöffler, Reinhard Dörner: Zeptosecond Birth Time Delay in Molecular Photoionization. Science

Image download:

Caption: Schematic representation of zeptosecond measurement. The photon (yellow, coming from the left) produces electron waves out of the electron cloud (grey) of the hydrogen molecule (red: nucleus), which interfere with each other (interference pattern: violet-white). The interference pattern is slightly skewed to the right, allowing the calculation of how long the photon required to get from one atom to the next. Photo: Sven Grundmann, Goethe University Frankfurt

Further information:
Prof. Dr. Reinhard Dörner
Institute for Atomic Physics
Telephone +49 69 798 47003


Oct 14 2020

Three-year German-American project studies biology of LRRK2 

Goethe University partner in US$ 7.2 million research project on Parkinson’s disease

FRANKFURT. About ten percent of Parkinson's cases can be ascribed to mutations in the LRRK2 gene. Five research teams from the University of California in San Diego, Goethe University Frankfurt and the University of Konstanz want to explain in the next few years how mutations in the LRRK2 gene trigger Parkinson's disease and what possible targets there are for drugs. The US-American initiative “Aligning Science Across Parkinson's" has made the equivalent of € 6.1 million available for this project.

In the early 2000s, it was discovered that in many Parkinson's patients a certain enzyme called LRRK2 mutates and evidently plays a significant role in five to ten percent of hereditary Morbus Parkinson and between one and five percent of the spontaneous form. LRRK2 is an enzyme that attaches phosphate groups to other proteins in the human cell and is far more active than normal in the brain cells of Parkinson's patients, leading it to block transport processes in the cell. Many inhibitors against the LRRK2 enzyme have already been tested in the past, but they are not sufficiently effective or their side-effects are too severe.

The five teams from USA and Germany want now to elucidate in detail the enzyme's structure and how it works in the cell and thus create a basis for the targeted production of inhibitors. A first three-dimensional structure of the LRRK2 protein was recently published by the research team in the journal Nature. The initiative “Aligning Science Across Parkinson's", which is backed by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, is supporting the project financially.

Co-Project Manager Stefan Knapp, Professor for Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Goethe University, explains: “By comparing LRRK2 mutations in Parkinson's patients with normal LRRK2, we want to find out which tasks LRRK2 assumes in the cell, how the enzyme moves three-dimensionally, and how the mutated LRRK2 contributes to nerve cells dying off. While the expertise of our colleagues in the USA lies in various imaging methods, here in Frankfurt we'll develop chemical probes to localize and study LRRK2 in cells and we will produce recombinant LRRK2 variants that will help us to understand their three-dimensional structure."

Co-Project Manager Florian Stengel, Professor for Cellular Proteostasis at the University of Konstanz, says: “In the framework of this project, we here in Konstanz want to identify the cellular interaction partners of LRRK2. In this way, we'll be able to complete our picture of its cellular role and thus make it possible to develop a drug against LRRK2 mutated Morbus Parkinson."

Article on the first three-dimensional structure of the LKKR2 protein: C K Deniston, J Salogiannis, S Mathea, D M Snead, I Lahiri, M Matyszewski, O Donosa, R Watanabe, J Böhning, A K Shiau, S Knapp, E Villa, S L Reck-Peterson, A E Leschziner. Structure of LRRK2 in Parkinson's disease and model for microtubule interaction. Nature. 2020 Aug 19

Pictures to download:

Caption: Professor Stefan Knapp, Institute of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Goethe University, Frankfurt (Foto: Uwe Dettmar)

Further information:
Professor Stefan Knapp
Institute of Pharmaceutical Chemistry
Goethe University Frankfurt
Phone: +49 69 798-29871

Professor Florian Stengel
Department of Biology / Laboratory of Cellular Proteostasis and Mass Spectrometry
University of Konstanz
Phone: +49 7531 88-5172