The LMU professors Patrick Cramer (Director of LMU’s Genzentrum), Jochen Feldmann (Chair of Photonics and Optoelectronics) and Theodor Hänsch (Chair of Experimental Physics and Director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics) are among the latest group of scientists who have been chosen to receive Advanced Investigator Grants by the European Research Council (ERC).
ERC Advanced Grants are prestigious and highly endowed awards that are conferred on leading European researchers who have already produced work of outstanding quality, and are designed to give them the freedom to pursue high-risk projects that have the potential to extend the horizons of their disciplines.
Patrick Cramer’s Project
The genetic information in the genomic DNA encodes the instructions for the synthesis of all the proteins in living cells in a process which involves several steps. In the first step, a defined segment of the DNA (a gene) is transcribed by a complex enzyme into messenger RNA molecules, which act as blueprints for the assembly of a specific protein. Tight regulation of transcription is essential for the ordered growth and development of all cells, but how this is accomplished is not fully understood. The goal of Professor Patrick Cramer’s research is to capture the entire sequence of events that determines where on the DNA – and how – transcription begins, in other words, how genes are activated. In a recent publication, Cramer and his coworkers showed how the enzyme RNA polymerase II, together with a protein called Transcription Factor B, selects the initiation site for the transcription of an mRNA molecule from DNA. This process serves as Cramer’s point of departure for a detailed structural and functional analysis of gene regulation, but new methodologies for measuring mRNA synthesis in cells will be needed to achieve this. “Our strategy is to study the function of the genetic material at the molecular and cellular levels,“ says Cramer. “These studies are also relevant to medicine, because errors in the regulation of transcription can lead to cancer and metabolic diseases.“
Professor Patrick Cramer was born in Stuttgart in 1969, and studied Chemistry in Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Bristol and Cambridge. He obtained his PhD in 1998 at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Outstation in Grenoble. He then took up a post-doctoral position at Stanford University, before becoming an Assistant Professor (tenure track) of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy at LMU in 2001. In 2004 he was appointed Director of LMU’s Genzentrum. He has received several awards for his work, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).
Jochen Feldmann’s Project
Many of the processes which are central to life, such as photosynthesis, respiration and nutrient uptake, take place on biological membranes. In his ERC project “Hybrid Nanosystems in Phospholipid Membranes“, Professor Jochen Feldmann plans to develop new methods, based on hybrid nanosystems consisting of metallic nanoparticles and organic molecules, to analyze membrane-bound molecules and manipulate membrane-associated bioprocesses. The specific features of the hybrid systems depend on the molecular constituents involved, but all have one thing in common – they respond to light. So light may be used to direct particles to particular targets or to catalyze the release of bound compounds. The photoactive characteristics of hybrid systems can thus provide new opportunities for the analysis of membrane components. “We want to synthesize a set of nano-optical tools that can be used not only to monitor membrane-associated processes for diagnostic purposes, but also to manipulate them by nanosurgery,“ says Feldmann. Gold nanoparticles can be used as ferries to transport substances – such as DNA molecules for genetic engineering, or drugs – into cells and there release them. Hence, one of the most important goals of the project is the development of ways to use light pulses to catapult gold nanoparticles and their cargo through cell membranes.
Professor Jochen Feldmann was born in 1961. He studied Physics at Marburg University and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After receiving his doctorate in 1990, he worked at the AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey (USA). In 1995 Feldmann became Professor of Photonics and Optoelektronics in the Faculty of Physics at LMU. Among his many awards are the Philip Morris Prize for Research and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the DFG. Feldmann has led the Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM), a Cluster of Excellence devoted to nanotechnologies, since it was set up by the DFG in 2007.
Theodor Hänsch’s Project
With the development of the laser-based frequency-comb technique ten years ago, Professor Theodor Hänsch introduced a revolutionary new method for the spectroscopic analysis of light emitted by atoms and molecules. A light pulse is passed around a precisely spaced array of mirrors such that, after each circuit, a copy of the original pulse is emitted from the array. The result is a train of uniformly spaced light signals. In effect, this “frequency comb” consists of a sequence of sharply defined spectral lines which can be used to determine the frequency components present in a second light source with great accuracy, with the “teeth” of the comb serving as a scale. Since publication of the original work, novel procedures have been developed in which the whole bandwidth of the comb can be used simultaneously, allowing one to characterize complete spectra of complex molecules. By combining two frequency combs it has been possible to increase the temporal resolution and the precision of the measurements significantly. Hänsch’s next aim is to broaden the applicability of the frequency-comb technique further, an advance which would open up new ways to detect and analyze molecules with high sensitivity. “The goal of the ERC project “Multidimensional laser frequency comb spectroscopy of molecules” is to develop new types of frequency comb and analytical methods for the mid-infrared, a portion of the spectrum in which measurements in real time remain difficult,“ explains Hänsch. The hope is that the new experiments will make it possible to acquire entire spectra in a matter of microseconds. This would amount to a million-fold improvement over conventional methods, and would permit ultra-fast and ultra-sensitive analyses of molecules. In this way, extremely short-lived molecular species could be detected, perhaps even enabling chemical reactions to be followed spectroscopically in real time. One further application of the technique lies in the area of hyperspectral imaging: the ability to acquire complete spectra in rapid succession would mean that even inhomogeneous samples could be analyzed with high temporal resolution.