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Three Collaborative Research Centres receive further funding

Illustration by Alena Gold/Photos by Markus Krüger/University of Jena, Anna Schroll/Leibniz HKI, Jan-Peter Kasper/University of Jena

The three Collaborative Research Centres (CRC) AquaDiva, FungiNet and Polytarget – all thematically linked to the Cluster of Excellence Balance of the Microverse – have been evaluated successfully and will receive funding by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for another four years.

CRC AquaDiva – Understanding the Links between Surface and Subsurface Biogeosphere

AquaDiva scientists have been investigating how water connects surface and subsurface habitats and how local geological conditions and surface conditions determine the properties and functional diversity of subsurface habitats since 2013. The DFG has now decided to continue funding the consortium with about eleven million euros. In addition to nine institutes of the University of Jena, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, the Leibniz Institute for Photonic Technologies and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry are participating in this consortium.

"Weather extremes, such as summer droughts and heavy rainfall, which we have increasingly observed especially in recent years, have a strong influence on the discharge of substances from the surface into the subsurface and thus also on groundwater recharge," says Prof. Kirsten Küsel, who heads the CRC together with Prof. Susan Trumbore and Prof. Kai Uwe Totsche.

For predictions of groundwater quantity and quality, it is necessary to better understand both the biogeochemical processes during transport through the subsurface and the microorganisms involved in conversion processes. The AquaDiva scientists have identified biotic and chemical "fingerprints" that stand for specific surface properties or "surface signals" and show how fast they are transported and how they are transformed on their way to the groundwater.

"A successful collaboration between microbiology research groups at the University of Jena and our Institute of Biogeochemistry was able to show that bacteria in the subsurface take up larger amounts of carbon dioxide and convert it into biomass, similar to algae in the ocean," reports Prof. Trumbore. These autotrophic bacteria include anammox bacteria, which are mainly responsible for eliminating nitrogen in groundwater. One of the goals of the Jena scientists is now to isolate novel anammox bacteria from groundwater that could be used for wastewater treatment.

In the third funding period, starting in July 2021, the researchers plan to coherently evaluate temporal developments using the large amount of data collected in previous years of the project.

CRC FungiNet – Pathogenic fungi and their human host: Networks of interaction

The DFG is funding the CRC/Transregio (TR) FungiNet for another four years with almost ten million euros. This will enable scientists in Jena and Würzburg to jointly research infection processes and new therapeutic options in the only CRC dealing with pathogenic fungi.

Fungal infections are a major challenge for modern high-performance medicine. COVID-19 exacerbates the problem: "SARS-CoV-2 infected patients have a higher risk of developing fungal infections starting in the respiratory tract. The severity of the diseases also increases dramatically," warns FungiNet spokesperson Prof. Axel Brakhage. Hermann Einsele, Director of the Medical Clinic II at the University Hospital of Würzburg and co-spokesperson of the SFB/TR adds: "The knowledge gained in basic research in recent years is increasingly enabling us to develop concrete applications in the diagnosis and treatment of severe fungal infections."

Scientists and physicians from the University of Jena, Jena University Hospital and Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology have therefore joined forces with colleagues from the University of Würzburg and its University Hospital to better understand life-threatening infections and develop new, urgently needed therapeutic approaches.

The DFG is funding this unique research focus since 2013. In the first two funding periods, experts from the fields of microbiology, immunology, clinical sciences, bioinformatics and chemistry jointly conducted basic research studies on the fungi Aspergillus fumigatus and Candida albicans. Both pathogens cause invasive fungal infections most frequently in Europe.

"In recent years, we have learned a lot about infection mechanisms. We have identified so-called virulence factors – for example the disease-causing properties of fungi – and now understand much better how the immune system reacts to them," Prof. Brakhage sums up. "Our focus in the third funding period is clearly on translation, the transfer of these findings into clinical applications to patients," the CRC spokesperson further emphasizes. For this reason, the FungiNet team will be strengthened in the coming funding phase by experts from the clinical environment.

Polytarget - Polymer-based nanoparticle libraries for targeted anti-inflammatory strategies

Drugs usually have side effects because they have to be administered in high doses so that the active ingredient reaches where it is needed. Scientists at Friedrich Schiller University Jena have therefore dedicated themselves to the search for alternative carrier materials and, since 2017, have been developing systems in the CRC PolyTarget that can be used to guide drugs to their intended destination in a targeted manner and deliver the active ingredients exactly where they are needed. Now, the DFG has approved further funding of almost 15 million euros for the next four years.

In addition to researchers from the fields of chemistry, materials science, pharmacy and biochemistry at the University of Jena, the CRC also involves physicians from Jena University Hospital as well as scientists from the Jena Leibniz Institutes for Photonic Technologies, for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, and for Aging Research, and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

"We package active substances in tiny polymer nanoparticles that are tailored in terms of their function," explains professor Ulrich S. Schubert, spokesperson for the CRC. The coupling of antibodies, peptides or other molecules with specific recognition structures ensures that the nanoparticles only penetrate the desired target tissue.

Newly developed active substances encapsulated by tissue-specific nanoparticles make it possible to resolve local and systemic inflammatory reactions and protect distant organs, thus preventing organ failure. The scientists are pursuing the long-term goal of developing cell-type-specific polymeric nanoparticles as drug carriers that selectively intervene in the various stages of inflammatory processes.

In its second funding period, PolyTarget is also responding to the current pandemic and has established a project area that specifically investigates viral-induced inflammatory reactions. PolyTarget will also contribute to knowledge transfer in the field of nanotechnology.

German press releases:


Text by Alena Gold based on German press releases by Sebastian Hollstein (University of Jena) and Leibniz HKI