Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology

All living organisms change – during the course of their lifetimes and across generations. The Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology is concerned with the development and evolution of animals and plants. The Institute’s scientists study how a fully functioning organism develops from a fertilised egg cell, and which genes are involved. They also analyse the role of these developmental processes in the emergence of new species, and examine the evolution of proteins. In a bid to find answers to their questions, the scientists work with model organisms, such as the zebra fish, fruit fly, threadworm and thale cress, a relative of the cabbage family. It has been shown that genes which influence development work in a similar way in different organisms – be they flies or people, thale cress or rice.


Max-Planck-Ring 5
72076 Tübingen
Phone: +49 7071 601-350
Fax: +49 7071 601-300

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):
IMPRS "From Molecules to Organisms"

All other PhD students are supported by the International PhD Program for the Biological Sciences. To apply, please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute directly.

Life on the edge prepares plants for climate change
Genetic variability supports plant survival during droughts more
Precision breeding needed to adapt corn to climate change
It took 2000 years to successfully grow maize in northern climates more
Is evolution predictable?
Yearbook article 2016, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology
Author: Richard Neher more
“The end product is what matters”
Detlef Weigel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, explains why genome editing offers a targeted way of breeding better crops more
Mating without males decreases lifespan
Roundworm species reproducing self-fertilization instead of mating with males have shorter lifespans more
A worm with five faces

A worm with five faces

January 15, 2016
Max Planck scientists discover new roundworm species on Réunion more
A vocabulary of ancient peptides
Max Planck scientists identify fragments of proteins that already existed billions of years ago more
Observing evolution in real time
Scientists analyze the dynamics of HI-virus adaptation more
Plants defend their territory with toxic substances
Plant toxins block histone deacetylases of neighboring plants and influence their growth negatively more
Plant immunity comes at a price
An overzealous immune system can be deadly more
Calculating evolution

Calculating evolution

November 12, 2014
Programme predicts the development of influenza viruses more

Max Planck paper observes temperature variability across the world

How the zebrafish gets its stripes
Max Planck scientists uncover how beautiful colour patterns can develop in animals more
Protein evolution follows a modular principle
Similarities between proteins reveal that their great diversity has arisen from smaller building blocks more
Eye evolution: a snapshot in time
Scientists of the Max Planck Institute are studying the visual system of marine annelids to gain insights into the evolution of eyes more

The human body is home to countless microbes. The intestinal tract, in particular, is colonized by innumerable bacteria. As a young environmental microbiologist, Ruth Ley never imagined that she would one day find herself interested in the human gut and the microbiota that reside in it. Today she conducts research at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, investigating the role the countless intestinal bacteria play in our health.

Climate change is radically altering the Earth’s plant and animal life. This is due not only to the rise in mean temperatures throughout the world, but also to the changes in temperature variability between both day and night, and summer and winter. George Wang, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, analyzes climate data with a view to researching the influence of the altered conditions on flora and fauna.

The Roundworm? What Teeth!

Biology & Medicine
Worms, beetles and a small island in the middle of the ocean. For developmental geneticist and evolutionary biologist Ralf Sommer from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, roundworms and beetles are the actors and the island of La Réunion the stage on which a great drama unfolds: an educational piece about evolution, the diversity of nature, and how it emerges.
The ragworm is an unusual laboratory animal. However, for Gáspár Jékely of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, this marine inhabitant has all the qualities of a perfect model organism: the larvae possess the simplest eyes in the world and later develop a simple nervous system made up of just a few hundred cells. This means that the scientist can track how sensory stimuli trigger behavioral changes.

Kirsten Bomblies

MPR 1 /2009 Biology & Medicine
Kirsten Bomblies uses an unassuming plant known as thale cress to examine in detail how new species are formed. Her aim is to shed light on one of the elementary mechanisms of evolution.
No job offers available

Phenotypic plasticity – how genes and the environment interact

2017 Sommer, Ralf J.; Loschko, Tobias; Riebesell, Metta; Röseler, Waltraud; Witte, Hanh
Developmental Biology Evolutionary Biology
Organisms are responsive to environmental variation. However, little is known on how genetic regulation of development is linked to environmental changes. Phenotypic plasticity, the property of a single genotype to produce distinct phenotypes dependent on the environmental conditions, provides a unique opportunity to study organismal-environmental interactions. The nematode Pristionchus pacificus is a new model for studying phenotypic plasticity. P. pacificus forms two distinct mouth-forms and is accessible to an unbiased studying of phenotypic plasticity. more

Connectomics in a marine larva: small but mighty

2017 Jékely, Gáspár
Developmental Biology
Connectomes are wiring diagrams of neural networks showing the specific connections between neurons. The research group Neurobiology of marine zooplankton is working on the complete wiring diagram of a small marine larva to understand how neuronal circuits mediate behaviour. more

Is evolution predictable?

2016 Neher, Richard
Evolutionary Biology
We are surrounded by microorganisms that adapt in their struggle to persist. In contrast to animals or plants, such adaptations don't take thousands of years but sometimes happen within weeks. To understand such rapid evolution, we need new theoretical frameworks and direct observations of the evolutionary dynamics. The research group develops such theory and uses it to analyze sequence data from influenza and human immunodeficiency virus populations. The results provide insight into the properties of the evolutionary process and allow predicting the composition of future virus populations. more

Early embryogenesis of Arabidopsis

2016 Bayer, Martin; Jürgens, Gerd
Cell Biology Developmental Biology Plant Research
The basic features of the body organisation of adult plants are established during embryogenesis. This process starts from the fertilized egg cell (zygote), which divides into an apical embryonic cell and a basal extra-embryonic cell. How this initial difference originates with input from the YODA pathway is briefly discussed. These cells give rise to embryo and extra-embryonic suspensor, respectively. The embryonic cells then generate, in response to the plant hormone auxin, a signal that stimulates the adjacent extra-embryonic cell to initiate the formation of the embryonic root meristem. more
Today it is possible to retrieve genomes from organisms that perished thousands of years ago. Millions of desiccated plant specimens are stored in museums and contain DNA suitable for genome sequencing. These specimens harbor an untapped record of global biodiversity spanning the last 450 years. The combined use of historical and modern plant samples introduces a temporal scale to evolutionary studies, allowing the interrogation of allele frequencies through time. The research group studies the evolution of plants, their pathogens, and the associated microbiome using modern and ancient DNA. more

The ubiquitin-proteasome system: structural insights into a cellular protein shredder

2015 Wiesner, Silke
Cell Biology Developmental Biology Medicine Structural Biology
The attachment of ubiquitin (ubiquitination) to proteins is one of the most abundant protein modifications and targets proteins for degradation. We aim to understand how the ubiquitination reaction works on a structural level, how ubiquitination enzyme activities are regulated, and how ubiquitination regulates cellular processes and behavior. Since dysregulation of ubiquitination is associated with many human diseases, our studies also offer starting points for novel drug design strategies aimed at manipulating ubiquitination enzyme activities with small molecule inhibitors. more

Importin 13 — a round trip through the nuclear pore

2014 Bono, Fulvia
Structural Biology
In eukaryotic cells DNA and transcription of RNAs are separated from protein biosynthesis occurring in the cytoplasm. Nucleus and cytoplasm are only connected via the nuclear pores. Transport between the compartments is aided by dedicated shuttling proteins, the karyopherins. Most karyopherins carry cargo only in one direction, either into (importins) or out of the nucleus (exportins), and then return empty handed. Importin 13 is an unusual karyopherin that can both import and export cargo. Our work revealed how Imp13 recognizes its cargoes and functions as a bidirectional transport factor. more

microRNAs: Tiny silencers of gene expression

2014 Izaurralde, Elisa
Cell Biology
MicroRNAs are genome-encoded, around 22 nucleotide-long RNAs that silence gene expression post-transcriptionally by binding 3′ untranslated regions of messenger RNAs. Although recent years amassed a wealth of information about their biogenesis and biological functions, the mechanisms allowing miRNAs to silence gene expression is not fully understood. Our long-term goal is to understand in molecular terms how miRNAs repress hundreds of mRNA targets in animal cells. more

The evolution of AAA ATPase nanomachines in protein quality control

2013 Martin, Jörg; Lupas, Andrei N.
Evolutionary Biology Structural Biology
As central elements of life, proteins fulfill a plethora of functions in cells and organisms. Not only their synthesis, but also their degradation has to be carefully regulated. Networks of ring-shaped AAA ATPases use energy to unfold proteins and deliver them into the interior of cylindrical proteasome complexes, where the disentangled proteins get degraded down to their basic components. Biochemical, bioinformatic and structural methods allow a deeper understanding of these processes on a molecular level and give insight into the evolution of complex protein nanomachines. more

Insights into the molecular machinery that degrades mRNA

2013 Sprangers, Remco
Cell Biology Structural Biology
Each cell contains thousands of different proteins, and each of these proteins fulfills a specific task. To ensure that the exact amount of individual proteins is produced at the right time, the cell tightly regulates the expression of genes. During this process, messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules transfer the genetic information to the cellular location of protein production. The group studies the molecular machinery that degrades these mRNA molecules - which provides the cell with an efficient means to terminate the production of proteins that are no longer required. more

The neurobiology of marine zooplankton

2012 Jékely, Gáspár
Developmental Biology Neurosciences
The world’s oceans are teeming with microscopic animal life, with myriads of tiny critters, collectively called zooplankton, swimming and swirling in the water. These organisms sense and react to their environment, are able to sense where the light is coming from, how cold the water is, or how deep they are. They achieve this with nervous systems of surprising simplicity. The research group is trying to understand, using the marine annelid Platynereis as a model, how these nervous systems are wired up and function. more

The genetic basis of morphological variation

2012 Nüsslein-Volhard, Christiane; Alsheimer, Soeren; Dooley, Christopher; Krauss, Jana; Harris, Matthew; Rohner, Nicolas; Frohnhöfer, Hans Georg
Developmental Biology
Darwins theory on the origin of species by means of natural selection rests on the assumption that in every generation the progeny are not exactly alike, but vary slightly. Those that fit best to the conditions survive and propagate their kind. In order to identify genes that when mutated cause the variation of animal morphology in evolution, it is necessary to understand growth and development of  shape and form. In the department of genetics muscle stem cells, as well as the development of integumentary structures and the pigment pattern of the zebrafish are investigated. more

Integrative approaches to evolutionary biology

2011 Sommer, Ralf J.
Evolutionary Biology
Modern approaches and discoveries in developmental biology have a major influence on the understanding of evolutionary patterns and processes. Developmental control genes are highly conserved throughout the animal kingdom. How, nevertheless, biological diversity was generated despite the conservation of developmental control genes is subject of research in the area of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). Recent studies in evo-devo aim for an integrative approach involving population genetics and ecology. more

Germ cell migration: Even cells need a travel guide

2011 Renault, Andrew
Cell Biology Developmental Biology
How a single cell gives rise to a complex multicellular embryo is a fascinating question in biology. This process involves coordination of cell division, differentiation and migration. We investigate the embryonic development of the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, and focus on studies of cell migration and in particular of germ cells, the cells that give rise to sperm and egg cells. This report describes how lipids play a crucial role in regulating the survival and migration of Drosophila germ cells and which biological principles we can learn from this research. more

Evolutionary mechanisms as a template for protein engineering

2010 Höcker, Birte
Structural Biology
The diversity of today’s universe of proteins has developed via a multitude of small changes. Gene duplication provides the material for mutation and selection, while recombination contributes to the creation of diversity. These mechanisms are the basis for many successful protein engineering experiments. The amount of available sequence and structural data enables general assumptions about important factors in structure-function relationships. These findings are used in rational and computational design to build proteins with desired new properties. more

Early embryogenesis of Arabidopsis

2010 Jürgens, Gerd
Cell Biology Developmental Biology Plant Research
The basic features of the body organisation of adult plants are established during embryogenesis. This process starts from the fertilised egg cell (zygote), which divides into an apical embryonic cell and a basal extra-embryonic cell. This report describes how the embryonic cells generate, in response to the plant hormone auxin, a signal that stimulates the adjacent extra-embryonic cell to initiate the formation of the embryonic root meristem. In addition, attempts to study the origin of the very first difference between apical and basal cell fate are briefly discussed. more

The 1001 Genomes Project for Arabidopsis thaliana

2009 Weigel, Detlef
Genetics Plant Research
Abstract Mouse ear cress, Arabidopsis thaliana, is the workhorse of plant genetics, and currently only second to humans when it comes to information about genomic variation within the species. In the past two years, there has been a revolution in sequencing technology, and A. thaliana is an ideal object for exploiting the dramatic improvements in sequencing speed and cost. This report describes the beginning of the 1001 Genomes Project, which has as its goal the complete description of the genomes of 1001 wild strains of A. thaliana. more

Cell type specification in the crustacean Paryhale hawaiensis

2008 Gerberding, Matthias
Developmental Biology Genetics
Animal embryos specify four early cell types. Determining the underlying mechanism is one central question of developmental biology. At present, it is studied how the crustacean Parhyale hawaiensis manages such developmental program at the eight-cell stage. Specification of germ cells, e.g., depends on the genes vasa and nanos, however, in a different way than in Drosophila melanogaster , demonstrating change of gene function during evolution. more

MicroRNAs - mighty dwarfs that switch off genes

2008 Elisa Izaurralde
MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are genome-encoded, about 22 nucleotide-long RNAs that silence gene expression post-transcriptionally by binding to 3’-untranslated regions of messenger RNAs. Although much information has been obtained about miRNA biogenesis and biological functions, the mechanisms allowing miRNAs to silence gene expression in animal cells remain controversial. Our goal is to understand the molecular mechanism of miRNA-mediated gene silencing. more

Mechanism of signal transduction through membranes

2007 Martin, Jörg; Lupas, Andrei
Cell Biology Structural Biology
Understanding how external signals are transduced across cellular membranes is a formidable challenge for molecular biologists. Through the structure of an archaeal HAMP domain, which was determined by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, we gained more insight into this process. The HAMP domain connects extracellular sensory to intracellular effector domains in a large number of transmembrane receptor proteins and hence is thought to play a crucial role in signal transduction. The structure reveals an ability to switch reversibly between two conformations with similar energy levels, whose balance is affected by ligand binding. A cogwheel-like rotation of helices, triggered by ligand binding to the sensory domain, appears to underlie the conformational change that mediates transduction of extracellular information into the cell. more

Using cooperative bacteria to understand the evolution of social systems

2006 Velicer, Gregory
Evolutionary Biology Microbiology
The long-term goal of our research is to understand how social systems adapt to variable environments. Thorough understanding of the adaptive process, however, requires detailed knowledge of the mutational basis of adaptations, the fitness and phenotypic effects of those adaptations, and the selective environments in which they conferred fitness advantages. Towards this end, we employ both laboratory-based evolutionary studies of the social bacterium Myxococcus xanthus, as well as studies of fine-scale phenotypic and genomic variation among natural isolates. Here we highlight some of our ongoing studies of laboratory-evolved genotypes. more

Cell migration in zebrafish: how cells find their way in building organs

2006 Gilmour, Darren; Knaut, Holger; Nüsslein-Volhard, Christiane
Cell Biology Developmental Biology
Cell migration in organisms is a complicated process, which is accomplished by the finetuned activity of the cytoskeleton in different regions of the cell. In vertebrates, cell migration plays a fundamental role as the three dimensional structure of organs is built by the migration of many different cell types: for example during the development of the nervous system and the blood vessels. It is obvious that these movements of cells from different origins have to be coordinated to ensure that each cell reaches its destined place. However, very little is known about how an embryo manages this huge logistic task. Embryos of the zebrafish, Danio rerio, harbour many characteristics making them the ideal model organism to study this dynamic cell behaviour in vivo: The embryos develop extremly fast outside the mother organism: 24 hours post fertilisation all important organ systems have started to form. Moreover, fish embryos are transparent, allowing high resolution time lapse microscopy to study and examine living animals. more

The nematode Pristionchus pacificus as a model system in evolutionary biology

2005 Sommer, Ralf J.
Developmental Biology Evolutionary Biology
All multicellular organisms in the animal kingdom share a surprisingly high number of molecular building blocks and many of the same regulatory pathways. Yet, we still do not know how the various organisms use and modify these pathways to generate the nearly endless diversity of biological form. Evolutionary developmental biology tackles this problem by comparing the development of one organism to another, related organism. We have established the nematode Pristionchus pacificus as a satellite organism in “evo-devo”. After the generation of a molecular toolkit, we now address multiple questions ranging from developmental biology, neurobiology and genomics all the way to ecology. more

A first glimpse at the molecular processes underlying learning

2005 Macchi, Paolo; Götze, Bernhard; Tübing, Fabian; Mallardo, Massimo; Köhrmann, Martin; Kiebler, Michael
Learning and memory are fundamental properties of higher organisms. While learning is the ability to acquire knowledge, memory refers to the ability to store acquired information and recall it in a novel context. In the last 50 years, it became clear that different forms of memories can be attributed to distinct regions within the brain. A region called hippocampus plays a crucial role in this process: it contains cells which are responsible for explicit forms of memories. Explicit memory represents conscious knowledge about the world, objects and people. Implicit memory, in contrast, represents unconscious procedures. Primarily we are interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory. more

Genome evolution in host-adapted bacteria

2004 Schuster, Stephan C.
Genetics Microbiology
The availability of a large number of microbial genomes from a broad range of organisms has shaped our understanding of the dynamics of genome structure from pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria. The close adaptation towards a host in a symbiotic or pathogenic relationship results in small, minimalist genomes. The genomes from related host-adapted and potentially free-living bacteria are studied to gain insight into the molecular mechanisms that have driven the speciation process from free-living last common ancestors to the obligatory pathogenic species that we see today. more
Our long-term goal is to understand the mechanisms underlying variation in adaptive traits. As a prerequisite, the genes that are used by wild plants and animals to create phenotypic diversity need to be defined. By integrating a mechanistic understanding of genetic networks with an understanding of the adaptive significance of trait variation, it should be possible to identify functionally divergent alleles in natural populations. This knowledge can be used to understand the genetic mechanisms underlying adaptive change, and to predict the performance of natural populations under changing environmental conditions. more
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