Research highlights from our yearbook
The yearbook of the Max Planck Society illustrates the research carried out at our institutes. We selected a few reports from our 2017 yearbook to illustrate the variety and diversity of topics and projects.
Active agent to combat Parkinson's
Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's are associated with protein clumps that are deposited in nerve cells with heavily toxic effects. The affected cell loses its function and dies. In the case of Parkinson's, the protein α-synuclein clumps to form Lewy bodies. The disease has so far proved incurable. Researchers have therefore long been searching for therapies that not only target the symptoms but also combat the causes. A team working with Christian Griesinger at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry in collaboration with Armin Giese's team at the LMU has discovered a substance which targets the protein directly and prevents clumping. The orally administered active agent by the name of anle138b proved very promising in tests on mice: rodents suffering from Parkinson's which were treated with it, scored significantly better in mobility experiments than their fellow untreated mice. The drug is to be tested on humans in a Phase 1 study from 2017.
Rocket fuel in bacteria
Whether as a component of proteins or genetic material – without nitrogen there would be no life as we know it. In the nitrogen cycle, the element is constantly converted as it circulates between organic material and the atmosphere. One of the most important chemical steps in this cycle was only discovered in the 1990s: the anammox process. Certain bacteria use it to make molecular nitrogen from ammonia and nitrite. Hydrazine is created as an intermediate product, and this is an extremely reactive compound that also serves as rocket fuel.
Thomas Barends and his colleagues at the MPI for Medical Research are looking at how the microbes deal with their explosive cargo. The researchers are focusing on the enzyme hydrazine synthase which makes hydrazine from ammonia and nitrogen monoxide. It consists of two active centres connected by a system of tunnels. In this it resembles a miniature factory – complete with reaction vessels and chemical pipelines.
Getting to the roots of genetic engineering
How does a plant know when to form fruit, for example? Different parts of the plant have to communicate with each other in order to control these developments. Mobile messenger Ribonucleic Acids (mRNAs) play an important role in this process. These small signal molecules are transported via vascular bundles and converted to proteins at their destination.
Researchers have already discovered more than 2000 individual mRNAs. Friedrich Kragler and his team at the MPI for Molecular Plant Physiology are trying to decode the signals – of crucial importance also for plant breeding. Many fruits that we eat, come from grafted plants. In the process, the fruit-bearing parts of a particular variety are grafted onto a genotypically different rootstock, for example to improve the yield. A transgenically modified root can therefore send mRNA messages to a non-transgenic bloom. This opens up the opportunity to modify plants highly specifically without producing genetically modified fruit in the process.
Planet discovered near Proxima Centauri
At a distance of four light years, Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to the sun. Mid-2016, some astronomers including Martin Kürster from the MPI for Astronomy in Heidelberg, discovered a planet which orbits Proxima Centauri every 11.2 days at a distance of seven million kilometres. The planet that is roughly 1.3 times more massive than Earth, is in a zone in which there could be liquid water and the right conditions for life if there is a suitable atmosphere. There are two factors, however, which will probably make it hard for life to evolve on this planet. It is likely that the planet always keeps the same side facing its sun with the result that one side has permanent daylight and the other everlasting night. Proxima Centauri is also a very active star: from time to time, it emits high-energy radiation that strikes the planet — this too creating somewhat unfavourable conditions for life.
Light on a tortuous Path
Scientists working with Philip Russell, Director at the MPI for the Science of Light in Erlangen, have succeeded for the first time in guiding light through a coreless fibre. Glass fibres act like "pipes" for light: normally they contain a light-guiding core whose glass has a higher refractive index than that of the outer shell. As a result, the light is reflected by the shell and trapped in the core. The Max Planck researchers have been studying photonic crystal fibres for a number of years, a special kind of glass fibre which has a regular pattern of hollow channels. If these fibres are helically twisted, the light is forced to follow a spiral path. To the scientists‘ surprise, it turned out that as a result of the twisting, coreless photonic crystal fibres are also able to channel light very well. The scientists also showed that there is a close connection between the mechanism by which the light is guided and the curvature of space due to mass in Einstein‘s General Theory of Relativity.
Tax Havens under Pressure
Combating tax havens has been on the OECD‘s agenda and that of the G20 countries for many years. The fight against tax evasion is proving difficult. The economist Kai Konrad and his doctoral student Tim Stolper from the MPI for Tax Law and Public Finances have examined the role the expectations of investors play in a new study. They show that there are several different expectations of equal weight that represent the determining factors behind the survival of a tax haven. With the aid of an approach used in applied game theory, Konrad and Stolper have derived a clear equilibrium forecast, the economic implications of which focus on the incentives for individual tax-payers. For example, the effectiveness of international pressure depends to a large extent on how high the fees for asset management in the tax haven are. The pressure is particularly effective when the fees are very low or very high.
Global Animal Law
The protection of animals by law enjoys a high status in Europe. Animal welfare has been upgraded in European Union law in the last few years, and the protection of animals was included in Germany‘s Basic Law as a state objective in 2002. More and more countries have also ceased to equate animals with objects in their law. The challenge facing legal scholars now is to define a new legal field of „Global Animal Law“, extending beyond animal welfare law, and to give it substance. Anne Peters and her employee Saskia Stucki from the MPI for International Law in Heidelberg are pursuing the research agenda of a global animal law jurisprudence. Jurisprudence here is understood as a science in relation to society the purpose of which is to contribute to the fight against social ills. As animal production and the trade in animals are usually transnational, the response to them must come from global law, in other words a combination of international and national law