©Credit Silke Oßwald/FMP29.04.2020
In the balancing act between detail and overall concept
Synapses determine our perception of how we move and what we remember. They are the contact points through which our nerve cells communicate. Little is known about how synapses are formed and how our brains form the complex molecular machinery by which neurons transmit certain information. This is exactly what Professor Dr Volker Haucke, Director at the Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP) and Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the Freie Universität Berlin (FU Berlin), and his team are investigating. For his "SynapseBuild" project, he was awarded one of the coveted ERC Advanced Grants by the European Research Council (ERC) at the end of March. The grant is endowed with a budget of up to €2.5 million. In his interview with Brain City Berlin, the biochemist tells us more about the project, doing research in Berlin as a centre for science, and the "Berlin Spirit".
Synapses are the billion-fold switching points of the nervous system through which signals are passed from one nerve cell to another. We know a lot about their function today, but almost nothing about how they are formed. The problem in the past was that it was almost impossible to follow these processes live in living systems while simultaneously analysing them at a molecular level. We are pursuing a new approach that includes human nerve cells derived from stem cells and the CRISPR/Cas technology for genome editing. This enables us to follow in real time how synapses form while the nerve cell differentiates. At the same time, we get access to the molecular components of human nerve cells and the genes that control them.
We've already watched synapses being made in lab mice. And we can make synapse proteins light up so that they're visible in developing fruit flies or roundworms, but this is limited in the analysis of the molecules, because there is practically no biochemical access to the material. At FMP, we're using human stem cells to produce excitatory neurotransmitters, i.e. those that send messages, in cell cultures. We can manipulate these stem cells using CRISPR/Cas technology, the so-called "gene scissors". This allows us to introduce glowing proteins into the cells which make certain synapse components visible. And we can genetically modify the stem cells. This enables us to follow in real time as the components of the synapse that forms are transported from the cell body along the axon and assembled there. We can also see which components are involved in this process and how it is controlled.
We primarily want to understand how synapses are formed. We'd also like to answer key questions, such as: Where does the material come from that is needed to form a functional synapse that release neurotransmitters from the nerve cell? How is this material then built into the resulting synapse? Are the same mechanisms active when synapses become stronger or weaker over the long term? What are the key processes in learning and storing memories? How does the nerve cell know when the formation of the synapse is complete? And how is the programme controlled in the formation of the nervous system, in which many different types of synapses cooperate? Answering such questions could be central to a better understanding of neurological disorders. And then there's the topic of regeneration: if nerves get cut or individual synapses perish, for example as a result of neurodegeneration, could we use this new approach to develop new synapses to fix these problems? In other words: understanding synapse formation could open up completely new approaches to combating neurological and neurodegenerative diseases. But that's still very much in the future. We are talking about a period of at least ten years.
The brain is extremely complex and the evolutionary biological origin of the nervous system is extremely interesting. It is a tremendous task to build a synapse without knowing what it's supposed to look like. From a cell biology perspective, this is a fascinating problem that is even more complex on the next level. Not only do different types of nerve cells exist, synapses can also be strengthened or weakened. Nerve cells also have to build many different types of synapses. For the system, this means: it must always adapt in interaction with itself and with the neighbouring cells. For us researchers, it is therefore important to ask the following critical question over and over: What does this result mean for the big picture? And what can I learn from it? These are crucial questions that people tend to forget when working on one detail or another.
Absolutely. The balancing act between the depth of detail and the view of the overarching concept behind it is difficult, but very important. Every scientist certainly has strengths in one direction or another. It is all the more important to have a team that integrates both types of scientists.
We have neuroscientists, cell biologists, molecular biologists, and optical biophysicists. We bring together all of the relevant specialities. This helps a lot because, for example, a physicist will ask different questions than a neurobiologist would.
We will finance four additional scientific positions on our research team and a part-time technical assistant. In addition to the nerve cells derived from human stem cells, we also need other models such as organoids, which are mini-brains from nerve cell bundles, and genetically modified mice to be able to verify findings in vivo and view them in the complex organism.
It is important and satisfying for a scientist to go out and inspire enthusiasm for one's own research. In addition, you are repeatedly faced with questions in teaching that help you to focus on your research work. These are often the simple questions. In principle, there is no qualitative difference between research at universities and non-university institutions. At external institutions, we may be a little more focused on research and we have funds for large devices that we then provide to universities as infrastructure. At the FMP we have a very close relationship with the colleagues at the universities with whom we work. The working atmosphere is very open and collegial and corresponds entirely to the “Berlin spirit”.
Let me delve deeper into that: when I was appointed professor at FU Berlin in 2003, the city was in a financially difficult situation. As a consequence, the universities often competed against each other. At the FU Berlin, people tended to see themselves as ready for the chopping block and assumed that the university would be merged into the [older] Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU Berlin) in Mitte [formerly East Berlin]. At HU Berlin, there was probably no less mistrust. This was especially true for the university management at that time. From the research point of view, such suspicions were never much of a problem. At that time, many young faculty were being newly appointed to the city's universities. There were no "top dogs" yet as may have been the case at other larger research centres in Germany. On the research level, an extremely fruitful and trusting coexistence has developed, which at some point has also inspired the university management to call a truce. As a result and with the support of many, including the new university directors and Berlin's government, the Berlin University Alliance has emerged. A great idea. Because such a science-driven university network was what the scientists in Berlin have always wanted. I think it's paid off.
The Berlin University Alliance catalyses new initiatives for collaborative research funding. In addition, it bundles resources and thus enables maximum access for all researchers to equipment and expertise across Berlin. The non-university research institutions must also have contact persons who bundle the whole thing. That's why they have come together under the umbrella of BR 50, as a contact for the BUA. We can discuss and solve problems together. As far as I know, we're the only city in Germany to have two such associations.
Every neuroscientist now knows NeuroCure. The cluster of excellence stands for quality and interdisciplinarity. Unlike many other clusters of excellence, NeuroCure has put almost all of its financial resources into recruiting scientists from outside. This has led to NeuroCure becoming a trademark worldwide. As an instrument, NeuroCure has significantly increased the attractiveness of Berlin as a place to conduct research. We use NeuroCure to work with many great colleagues in a great range of fields including clinical. It also helps us attract people. Young researchers in our field are specifically seeking out Berlin.
Above all, the Berlin Spirit I already mentioned. Berlin is now also internationally attractive as a centre for scientific research. It has developed extremely dynamically over the past 15 to 20 years and has made a big leap, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It's fun to work here. But there is still a lot to do: at the moment we are not quite at the same level as Boston, San Francisco or Zurich. But we have to get there and we will.
Berlin is a cosmopolitan city that lets you do what you want. A city that promotes freedom of thought. Berlin has a lot of green space and style. I come from a village where societal control was very important. You couldn't order a cup of coffee for Sunday breakfast without incurring disapproval from others. It's different in Berlin. Like all cities, Berlin also has its problems, of course. For example, it is a bit too spread out. Research campuses such as Berlin-Buch should be better connected via public transport.
Listen to your inner voice! It also includes letting it speak. I really have to give something a chance so that it can grab me. If I just scratch the surface, it will remain difficult. Research as a career often comes with great risks. It can take a long time to get a permanent position and be reasonably convinced that your career is really going to take hold. Only a few doctoral students will ultimately become professors or remain in academic research. Nevertheless, don't just look at the numbers. If you really want something, you can do it. So my advice is: Follow your interests, not fashion and chose the best lab you can think of! (vd0)
Transfer – Stories Photo: Ernestine von der Osten-Sacken (vdo)Transfer – StoriesThe Charlottenburg Innovation Centre CHIC hosts around 50 start-ups. Situated at Brain City Berlin’s “Zukunftsort” Campus Charlottenburg, the CHIC…→
CHIC - Business Incubator at a "Zukunftsort’"
Transfer – Stories Photo: Mall Anders/Matthew CrabbeTransfer – Stories“Mall Anders” is an open learning laboratory which was launched by the FU Berlin, HU Berlin, TU Berlin and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in a…→
Science in a Shopping Centre
Transfer – Stories BHT/Martin GaschTransfer – StoriesInterview: Brain City Ambassador Dr-Ing. Ivo Boblan, Professor of the Humanoid Robotics Study Programme at the Berliner Hochschule für Technik, and…→
“Robots Can Save us a Great Deal of Work”
Transfer – Stories (Left to right) Prof. Christian Matzdorf, Police commissioner Turgay Akkaya, Stefan Graf Finck von Finckenstein, Photo: HWR Berlin / Sylke SchumannTransfer – StoriesPolice commissioner Turgay Akkaya has developed an anti-stalking app as part of his Bachelor’s project at the HWR Berlin. At the beginning of January…→
A Preventive App Against Stalking
Transfer – Stories (From left to right) Steffen Terberl/FU Berlin; Prof. Dr. Hannes Rothe/ICN Business School, photo: Ernestine von der Osten-SackenTransfer – StoriesIn the BioTech sector, the Berlin region is not making full use of its innovation potential. This is the conclusion of the “Deep Tech Futures Report…→
“BioTech does not get up and running on its own”
Transfer – Stories Photo: Christina Lüdtke (private source)Transfer – StoriesFour universities, one network: The network “Science & Startups” groups the start-up services of the universities united in the Berlin University…→
Wide-ranging Support for University Start-ups
Transfer – Stories Photo: privateTransfer – StoriesA guest contribution by Brain City Ambassador Dr. Anna Klippstein, professor of finance and Eliyahu Mätzschker, student at Touro College Berlin.→
The Pandemic and its Impact on the Capital Market
Transfer – Stories Credit: André BakkerTransfer – StoriesA guest contribution by Brain City Ambassador Prof. Dr Anabel Ternès von Hattburg, Professor for International Business Administration at the SRH…→
Getting on Board with Digitality
Transfer – Stories Swen Hutter (Foto: David Ausserhofer), Gesine Höltmann (Foto: Martina Sander)Transfer – StoriesA guest contribution by Gesine Höltmann, research assistant and Swen Hutter, Deputy Director at the Centre for Civil Society Research.→
Polarisation and Cohesion in the Corona Crisis: a Look at Civil Society
Transfer – Stories Foto: "Lucid Dream", Elena Kunau and Mariya YordanovaTransfer – StoriesARTIFICIAL REALITY – VIRTUAL INTELLIGENCE is the name of an exhibition that can be seen from 8 to 12 September as part of Ars Electronica Garden…→
Interaction via Emotion
Transfer – Stories Credit: Peter Himsel/Campus Berlin-Buch GmbHTransfer – StoriesThe Campus Berlin-Buch in the north of Brain City Berlin has grown to become one of Europe’s largest business and research centres for life sciences.→
A Vibrant Healthcare Network
Transfer – Stories Credit: Markus KrutzikTransfer – StoriesDr. Markus Krutzik, Head of the Joint Lab Integrated Quantum Sensors (IQS), on the "Wissenschaft trifft Wirtschaft" (Science Meets Business") event…→
"I am Fascinated by the Possibilities of Quantum Sensors"
Transfer – Stories Foto: ESCP Business School BerlinTransfer – StoriesWhat to do when distance is suddenly the order of the day? A guest contribution by Dr. René Mauer, Professor of Entrepreneurship und Innovation at…→
Using Whiteboards to Combat Digital Fatigue
Transfer – Stories Credit: Alexander Rentsch/HTW BerlinTransfer – StoriesBrain City Ambassador Prof. Dr. Florian Koch of HTW Berlin brings together science, business and civil society in his research.→
“Increasing Urbanisation also Creates Opportunities”
Transfer – Stories Credit: Rudolf GrillborzerTransfer – StoriesGuest contribution by Brain City Ambassador Dr.-Ing. Onur Günlü, Technische Universität Berlin.→
Exploring the "ultimate limits"
Transfer – Stories Credt: Startup Incubator BerlinTransfer – StoriesThe Startup Incubator Berlin at the Berlin School of Economics and Law is particularly successful in supporting founder teams – as proved by the fact…→
“We Bring Ideas to Market”
Transfer – Stories Credit: Mimi Thian on UnsolashTransfer – StoriesGuest Contribution by Brain City Ambassador Dr. Petyo Budakov, University of Europe for Applied Sciences.→
“Proudly presenting Brain City Berlin in 2020”
Transfer – Stories Susanne Plaumann (private)Transfer – StoriesInterview with Brain City Ambassador Susanne Plaumann M.A., Central women's representative at the Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin.→
“Careers are now easier to plan for women scientists”
Transfer – Stories Adi Goldstein auf UnsplashTransfer – StoriesStadtManufaktur Berlin conceptually unites research projects of the TU Berlin under a single roof. The long-term goal of this “open laboratory…→
Science in Dialogue with the City
Transfer – Stories Falk WeißTransfer – StoriesThe knowledge portal “humboldts17” presents current research on the subject of sustainability and welcomes open dialogue with the general public. The…→
17 Goals for the Future
Transfer – Stories Foto: Olga Makarova privatTransfer – StoriesBrain City Ambassador Olga Makarova reflects on being a microbiologist during the pandemic, and the urgent need for microbiology literacy in society.→
Guest Contribution: COVID-19 and microbiology literacy
Transfer – Stories HIIGTransfer – StoriesBrain City-Interview with Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulz, Research Director at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG).→
“A sustainable goal of our work is to make clear what the technology can actually do”
Transfer – Stories HTW BerlinTransfer – StoriesAn interview with Brain City Ambassador Prof. Dr. Kai Reinhardt. On October 28, he will be speaking at the second SpreeTalk at HTW University of…→
“The pandemic has been a catalyst for digitalization”
Transfer – Stories dentalXr.aiTransfer – StoriesdentalXrai is the first dental start-up to be spun off the Charité. It was launched via the accelerator of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH). We…→
Artificial intelligence in the fight against tooth decay
Transfer – Stories Anna Raysyan (private)Transfer – StoriesBrain City Ambassador Anna Raysyan has been living in Berlin for 3,5 years now. She is a PhD student at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und…→
Guest Contribution: “Berlin likes the bold!”
Transfer – Stories ©Berlin Partner für Wirtschaft und TechnologieTransfer – StoriesMany top-class researchers and scientists are being attracted to Brain City Berlin every year. The Dual Career Network Berlin helps partners of…→
Dual Career Network Berlin: getting a good start in Berlin
Transfer – Stories ©Matthias PicketTransfer – StoriesDr. Anne Schreiter, Managing Director of the German Scholars Organization (GSO), reveals in the Brain City interview what alternative career…→
"Science is not just about research"
Transfer – Stories © Pocky Lee on UnsplashTransfer – StoriesMatches in front of empty stadiums, virtual marathons, and many postponed events. Brain City Ambassador Professor Gabriele Mielke is tracking the…→
"Now is the time for innovators"
Transfer – Stories © AW Creative on UnsplashTransfer – StoriesJuggling a degree course or teaching with the extra burden of the care of children or other family members is not an easy task. Both students and…→
From “Zoo School” to “Maternity Protection”: family-friendly universities
Transfer – Stories © HTW Berlin / Nikolas FahlbuschTransfer – StoriesTeaching is currently only taking place online. Guest author Dr Dorothee Haffner, professor for Museology at HTW Berlin - University of Applied…→
Guest contribution: "Online teaching is more engaging than I thought"
Transfer – Stories Franziska SattlerTransfer – StoriesIn the interview: Brain City ambassador Franziska Sattler on her series of events "Kaffeeklatsch mit Wissenschaft" (Talking Science over Coffee) at…→
"Science needs the trust of society"
Transfer – Stories Fotocredit: Ortner & Ortner / SiemensTransfer – StoriesSiemensstadt 2.0 is a place of the future. The Berlin Senate has approved 9.9 million euros for the first research project "Electrical Drive…→
Siemensstadt 2.0: Research and industry closely linked
Transfer – Stories © hj barraza/UnsplashTransfer – StoriesOur guest author Dr Barbara Schäuble is Professor for Diversity-Conscious Approaches in the Theory and Practice of Social Work at ASH Berlin and a…→
Guest contribution: A sudden change of course - classes moved online
Transfer – Stories ©DexLeChemTransfer – StoriesLaunching a start-up while at university? Sonja Jost's success shows the way. Together with three fellow students, she founded DexLeChem after…→
"Bringing new knowledge to the market is very important to us"
Transfer – Stories ©Ivar Veermäe / Centre for EntrepreneurshipTransfer – StoriesBrain City Berlin is the German capital of start-ups. Many young companies have successfully been founded through Berlin and Brandenburg based…→
"Society in particular benefits from high-tech start-ups" - university survey enters its third round
Transfer – Stories ©BIH|Thomas RafalzykTransfer – StoriesAt the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) the main focus is on "translational research" - the transfer of findings from the research lab into clinical…→
“There are now many great female scientists, achieving great things”
Transfer – Stories ©fotografixx - istockphoto.comTransfer – StoriesIn the digital age learning behaviour changes profoundly. It is student-centered and technology rich. As a member of the Erasmus+ funded project…→
Exploring the future of learning
Transfer – Stories © Brain City BerlinTransfer – StoriesResearch results quickly and easily accessible online: The Open Access movement is campaigning for a paradigm shift in the field of publications and…→
Open Access: free knowledge for everyone
Transfer – Stories ©ESCP EUROPETransfer – Stories29.10.2019 | Professor Andreas Kaplan is a Brain City Berlin ambassador and Rector of ESCP Europe Business School Berlin. The economist's research is…→
"We have to be able to take everyone on the journey."
Transfer – Stories Gudrun Piechotta-HenzeTransfer – StoriesIn time for the 2020/21 winter semester, ASH, the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences Berlin, is launching the first bachelor's degree to…→
"We have to completely rethink nursing!" | 27.09.2019
Transfer – Stories ©Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin/Matthias HeydeTransfer – StoriesThe courses offered by the HUWISU Summer University are varied and exciting, the target group is international: students from abroad who come to…→
When Berlin becomes one large seminar room ... | 15.08.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:]Transfer – StoriesThe literary scholar Dr. Betiel Wasihun was traveling for science. After stops in Heidelberg, Yale, and Oxford, it brought her to Berlin two years…→
“Berlin is a perfect location. Especially if you don’t want to pursue just a single avenue of scientific work.” | 12.08.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:] Berlin University Alliance/Matthias HeydeTransfer – StoriesTogether we are stronger. And also more successful. As the "Berlin University Alliance," the Technische Universität Berlin, the Freie Universität…→
Congratulations: The “Berlin University Alliance“ receives funding of the Excellence Strategy |19.07.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:] David Ausserhofer/IGBTransfer – StoriesBerlin is one of the most water-rich cities in Germany. But climate change does not stop at the Havel, Spree or Wannsee either. Dr. Michael Hupfer is…→
"We're trying to take a look into the future." | 04.07.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:] Helena Lopes / UnsplashTransfer – StoriesSend a digital lollipop or delicate fragrance notes via email or let the wind virtually blow against your face - research makes it possible. Learn…→
Experiencing the digital world with all senses | 18.06.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:] HZB/M. SetzpfandtTransfer – StoriesIn these times of fake news and pseudo-scientific publications, many people find it difficult to distinguish legitimate from dubious content. Only 54%…→
"Science needs to make us curious" | 11.06.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:] Tim LandgrafTransfer – StoriesBrain City Berlin is considered one of the leading locations in Germany working on artificial intelligence. About 30% of all German AI companies are…→
Fish, bees, and self-driving cars | 07.06.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:]Transfer – StoriesScience and cultural heritage, freely accessible to everyone at any time on the Internet: The Open Access movement is promoting a paradigm shift in…→
Knowledge for All - Open Access in Berlin | 28.03.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:] Thomas Rosenthal - Museum für Naturkunde BerlinTransfer – Stories660 million euros in 10 years: The Natural History Museum Berlin - Museum für Naturkunde Berlin receives financial support for the further development…→
Future of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin | 14.01.2019
Transfer – Stories [Translate to English:]Transfer – StoriesSpace exploration is experiencing a revolution thanks to commercialization by such companies as Elon Musk's SpaceX. But did you know that more facets…→
From Berlin to the moon: the space industry is booming in Berlin | 03.09.2018