It is estimated that between 30 and 40% of all cellular proteins reside in the non-aqueous environment of lipid membranes where they perform crucial metabolic functions and regulate the transfer of information and material into and out of the cell. Because membrane proteins govern such processes as nutrient uptake, drug efflux, respiration, sensory physiology, endocrine function, immunity and neuronal communication, they are central players in numerous disease states and host-pathogen interactions. To understand and modulate any of these processes, a thorough understanding of the activities of the respective membrane protein components – at the molecular level – is an absolute requirement.
However, their location in hydrophobic membranes presents extreme difficulties for their isolation and characterization, with the result that knowledge of membrane proteins lags far behind that of soluble proteins. The lack of detailed structural and functional information on these essential molecular machines is one of the most pressing problems of modern biology. The four Departments at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics employ a variety of complementary techniques to resolve the details of membrane protein biology. The contexts explored in individual projects range from the organismal to the atomic, with the goal of integrating findings at all levels to generate a complete picture of the processes under study.
Since 1987 the Department of Molecular Membrane Biology uses X-ray crystallography as its primary tool. Under the direction of Hartmut Michel (Nobel Prize in Chemistry of 1988 for the first structure determination of a membrane protein), the Department has illuminated the structure and mechanisms of three of the four electron transfer complexes of the respiratory chain and is actively pursuing structures of secondary transporters and G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). The Department of Structural Biology established in 1996 and headed by Werner Kühlbrandt,, uses electron microscopy to analyze 2D crystals as well as large complexes by single-particle methods or electron tomography to determine their structures and mechanisms. Long standing project areas include structural work on transport proteins such as ATPases, symporters, antiporters and translocon complexes, and on plant photosynthetic complexes. The Department of Biophysical Chemistry, founded in 1993 and directed by Ernst Bamberg, applies high precision electrophysiological and spectroscopic methods to directly probe the mechanisms of action of ion pumps and transporters directly in lipid membranes. Transport cycle information is obtained from measurements on living cells as well as in vitro using solid supported bilayer techniques. The Department of Theoretical Biophysics, founded by Gerhard Hummer in 2013, studies the structure, stability, dynamics, and function of biomolecules and their complexes using theory and simulation. Biomolecular systems are investigated with the tools of statistical physics and quantum chemistry. Molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo simulations provide a detailed, atomistic description of key biomolecular processes, from biological energy conversion to cellular transport and signaling.
A brief history of the Institute
The Institute has its origins in the "Institut für Physikalische Grundlagen der Medizin" established in 1921 by citizens of Frankfurt as a foundation, the Oswalt Foundation. Friedrich Dessauer, an admirer of Wilhelm Roentgen, who endeavored to apply radiation physics to medicine and biology, became director of the institute. As a conservative member of parliament for the democratic "Zentrumspartei", Dessauer opposed the National Socialists' rise to power and was forced to emigrate in 1934. His successor, Boris Rajewsky, Dessauer's colleague and long-standing collaborator, founded in 1937 the "Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biophysics" in Frankfurt, as an Institute of the "Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften e.V." (founded in 1911). Rajewsky coined the term "Biophysics" and consequently the institute became one of the first to be known by this name.
From its beginnings into the sixties, scientists at the Institute studied mainly the biological and medical effects of ionizing radiation. Instrumentation from the pre-war period included a 3 MeV electron accelerator and one of the first electron microscopes which was however requisitioned (not without compensation) by the US in 1945. In February 1948 with the foundation in Göttingen of the "Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science e. V." and under the presidentship of Otto Hahn, the Institute was re-established as the Max-Planck-Institute of Biophysics.
In the 60s and 70s, the focus of research at the Institute changed towards the study of solute transport through biological and artificial membranes. Scientists at the Institute investigated successfully at that time the new field of cellular physiology, in particular the functional properties of the cell membrane and its proteins. The institute became a worldwide attractive place for membrane research. The splendid old "villa Speyer" in the Kennedyallee 70, a listed building on permanent loan from the City of Frankfurt, proved to be too small for three expanding departments, and in 1972 a new laboratory building hosted two departments. The building known as the “Blue Tower” was located on a site adjacent to the Max-Planck-Institute for Brain Research, close to the university hospital. However there was the clear necessity to accomodate all Departments at the Institute within a single building. Finally in April 2003 the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics moved to a new building on the Riedberg campus of the Goethe University. This move has intensified scientific interactions between research groups and strengthened contacts with fellow researchers of the University's biology, chemistry, and physics laboratories next door.
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