Posted: August 5, 2010

Two innovative LMU projects in physics receive EU funding

(Nanowerk News) Two junior researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich have been awarded prestigious Starting Grants by the European Research Council (ERC). Professor Dieter Braun and Professor Philip Tinnefeld, both members of the Faculty of Physics, will each receive research funding in the amount of some 1.5 million Euros over the next five years. ERC Starting Grants are specifically designed to fund the work of outstandingly creative researchers in the early phases of their careers.
Dieter Braun's Project
Can the chemical evolution of the basic elements of living systems be recapitulated in the laboratory? Dieter Braun's ERC-funded project "Autonomous Evolution in a Molecule Trap" (AUTO-EVO) will explore ways to achieve this ambitious goal. Physicist Braun and his team want to assemble a system in which a simple form of autonomous Darwinian evolution can be realized under conditions like those that prevailed on the prebiotic Earth. Starting from simple physical principles, the researchers hope to define the minimal ingredients necessary for autonomous chemical evolution. Preliminary theoretical and experimental work in Braun's group has already shown that systems that are far from equilibrium can display physical effects that could favor the process.
He and his coworkers have already shown that temperature gradients like those found near hydrothermal vents on the sea-floor can act to concentrate dilute solutions of biochemical precursors of the molecules of heredity (nucleic acids), sufficiently to facilitate their interaction. In Braun's new project, this approach will be pursued and experimentally tested on a broad front.
The goal is to put together a system in which replication, mutation and selection of nucleic acids takes place in a single reaction chamber. An artificial system that produces biologically active substances from simpler chemical building blocks under conditions like those found during the early history of the Earth would provide valuable insights into how the chemical phases of evolution could have occurred. It is rather too much to hope that the true course of the evolution of life on Earth can ever be reconstructed in detail. Nevertheless, AUTO-EVO is not just an attempt to solve a theoretical problem. The lessons learned during the project may well have biotechnological applications, as in the case of the earlier LMU spin-off, NanoTemper, which also emerged from a project in basic science.
Dieter Braun studied physics at Ulm University and at the Technische Universität in Munich , obtaining his primary degree in 1997. He completed his doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried three years later. Braun then moved to Rockefeller University in New York as a post-doctoral research fellow. In 2003 he returned to Munich to lead an Emmy-Noether Research Group at the Center for NanoScience (CeNS) at LMU. In 2007 he was appointed an Assistant Professor (W2) at the Center.
Philip Tinnefeld's project
Single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy (SMS) is a sensitive physical method for probing the physicochemical states of molecules. The technique uses laser light to excite target molecules to emit a characteristic spectrum of photons (light quanta), whose properties allow one to deduce the states of individual emitters. The method has already provided deep insights into biomolecular processes and interactions. Philip Tinnefeld's ERC project "Single-molecule bioassays at elevated concentration" (SIMBA) hopes to set new standards for the applicability of the technology.
Until now, the method could only be used on highly dilute solutions of the analyte of interest. The molecular concentrations found in living systems are in most cases very much higher. One of the goals of SIMBA, therefore, is to develop a new type of 'nanopore' that allows the method to be reproducibly applied to single molecules at a time. Indeed, Tinnefeld and his team wish to synthesize, and characterize in detail, designer nanostructures that can be used to immobilize single particles for measurements of their biochemical activity or binding interactions with other molecules. The signals recorded from nanopores of defined structure would all be comparable with each other and hence provide more information than the average values obtainable with the present method.
SIMBA would also make the method much easier to use and thus broaden its range of applications. Single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy not only has the potential to become a key technology in many areas of research, it is also of tremendous commercial interest. In the biosciences, high-throughput applications in large-scale searches for new drugs and medical diagnostics are conceivable.
Philip Tinnefeld studied chemistry in Münster, Montpellier and Heidelberg, and obtained his doctoral degree at Heidelberg University in 2002. He carried out post-doctoral work at the University of California in Los Angeles, and at the Catholic University in Leuven. After his Habilitation in physics at the University of Bielefeld in 2006, he was appointed Professor of Biophysics at LMU in 2007. Philip Tinnefeld will soon take up a new position at the University of Braunschweig.
ERC Starting Grants
The scientific stature of both applicant and project is the sole criterion for the award of an ERC grant. The project must be highly innovative – in other words, risky – but promise to deliver insights of wide-ranging import in case of success. It should also involve a high degree of interdisciplinary cooperation. The program was first set up by the EU in 2007, and with Dieter Braun and Philip Tinnefeld, LMU Munich now has five holders of ERC Starting Grants in its ranks. Dr. Katja Strässer was among the winners in 2007, while Professor Jens Michaelis and Privatdozent Dr. David Vöhringer received the award in 2009.
Source: LMU