Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology

Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology

The Institute's central task is to understand the way microorganisms work at the molecular, cellular and ecological level. Institute scientists are concerned, on the one hand, with getting to the bottom of the metabolic diversity of microorganisms. On the other hand, they analyse the mechanisms that enable microorganisms to adapt to changing environmental influences and to modify themselves accordingly. Furthermore, the scientists investigate how the organisms regulate their cell structure and their reproduction. They also study the biogeochemical processes responsible for the exchange of climatically-relevant trace gases. These analyses encompass all functional levels, from the atomic and structural level to the molecular and cellular level, through to biochemistry and physiology, microbial communities and the association of microorganisms with plants.


Karl-von-Frisch-Str. 10
35043 Marburg
Phone: +49 6421 178-0
Fax: +49 6421 178-999

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):
IMPRS for Environmental, Cellular and Molecular Microbiology

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

“We are trying to develop CO2 as a source of carbon”
Tobias Erb discusses a synthetic metabolic pathway that fixes carbon dioxide and synthetic biology more
Using synthetic photosynthesis to combat climate change
A synthetic biological metabolic pathway fixes CO2 more efficiently than plants more
Tatjana Tchumatchenko, Tobias Erb and Ludovic Righetti receive the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize 2016 more
A ‘frozen reaction’ as key to eco-friendly chemical catalysis
Novel tools to study enzyme catalysis more
New insight into biochemical methane production
Cryo-electron microscopy images reveal the structure of a hydrogenase used by archaebacteria to split hydrogen to produce methane more
Two species fused to give rise to plant pest
A fungal species native to Iran which attacks grasses is the result of natural hybridisation that occurred just a few hundred years ago more
Smut fungus has found a new way to switch off plant immune defence
Fungal pathogen manipulates the plant's metabolism to promote the infection of maize plants more
Evolutionary arms race between smut fungi and maize plants
Max Planck scientists decode maize parasite genome more
Wielding the subtle weapons of a fungus
An international group of researchers has identified genes which enable the maize smut pathogen to live as a parasite more
Sequencing the genome of a new kind of methane producer
Survival strategy of microorganisms responsible for the world-wide emission of methane from rice paddies uncovered more

Metabolism 2.0

MaxPlanckResearch 1/2017 Environoment & Climate
Over 50 million genes and 40,000 proteins: combing through international databases for likely candidates, Tobias Erb and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg were faced with an overwhelming choice. In the end, the scientists picked out just 17 enzymes for the first synthetic metabolic pathway that is able to convert carbon dioxide into other organic molecules. Now they have to show that the cycle they sketched out on the drawing board also works in living cells.
Protecting the climate means also protecting the biotopes in which methane-oxidizing bacteria live.

Unicellular Whispers

MPR 4 /2007 Biology & Medicine
Occasionally, they can be seen with the naked eye: small orange-yellow spherical structures. Closer exam­ination reveals that they are accumulations of countless bac­teria of the genus Myxococcus.
Department Director
Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, Marburg May 15, 2018

Synthetic carbon dioxide fixation

2017 Erb, Tobias
Ecology Genetics Microbiology

The conversion of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into organic compounds is a key process in the global carbon cycle. In the past years, several novel pathways and enzymes for the conversion of CO2 were discovered in microorganisms. In parallel to these discoveries, new approaches were followed by using the methods of synthetic biology to establish artificial pathways for the fixation of CO2 that are more efficient compared to naturally existing CO2-fixation pathways. Synthetic CO2-fixation could pave the way towards novel applications in biotechnology and nanotechnology.


Architecture of bacterial communities

2016 Drescher, Knut
Developmental Biology Ecology Microbiology

Many bacterial species colonize surfaces and form dense three-dimensional structures, known as biofilms, which are resistant to antibiotics and constitute one of the major forms of bacterial biomass on Earth. The developmental process that gives rise to biofilms is largely unknown. It was recently discovered that between the initial surface attachment and mature tower-shaped biofilm structures, the cellular architecture undergoes several critical transitions.


How anaerobic bacteria and archaea conserve energy

2015 Buckel, Wolfgang
In clostridia the exergonic reduction of crotonyl-CoA to butyryl-CoA by NADH is coupled to the endergonic reduction of ferredoxin by NADH – a process called flavin-based electron bifurcation, catalyzed by a two-FAD-containing electron transferring flavoptrotein (Etf) and butyryl-CoA dehydrogenase (Bcd). This, and similar systems are wide-spread in anaerobic bacteria and archaea, which reduce ferredoxin for H2 formation in fermentations, for generation of ΔµNa+ via a ferredoxin-NAD reductase (Rnf) and in aceto-and methanogenesis for CO2 reduction by H2. more
Hydrogen is an atmospheric trace gas which is mainly decomposed in soils. Already in the 1970s it was obvious that the decomposition process must be based on biological activity. However, it took more than 40 years until the decomposition process was finally understood. Today we know that nickel-iron hydrogenases of the group 5 are responsible for the oxidation of the atmospheric hydrogen. These hydrogenases are mainly found in Actinobacteria, e.g., Streptomyces or Mycobacterium, which are common microorganisms in soils. more

Biochemistry of the microbial methane cycle

2014 Thauer, Rudolf Kurt
Methane (CH4) is an important intermediate in the global carbon cycle. Per year about 1 Gt methane is formed from biomass and further oxidized to CO2. The formation of methane involves mainly anaerobic microorganisms, whereas in the oxidation of methane both anaerobic and aerobic microorganisms participate. In the atmosphere, where methane acts as a greenhouse gas, methane is predominantly re-mineralized photochemically. Investigations of the biochemistry of the methane cycle have led over and over again to new discoveries. On two of the most recent discoveries will be reported here. more
Iron-sulfur (Fe/S) clusters serve as ancient cofactors of proteins with a function in catalysis, electron transport and the regulation of gene expression. The synthesis of a Fe/S cluster and its insertion into target proteins is a complex process which in eukaryotes requires more than 30 proteins in mitochondria and cytosol. These components were analyzed both in vivo and in vitro for their molecular function and a mechanistic model of Fe/S protein biogenesis was proposed. In humans, malfunctions in this pathway cause numerous diseases. more

Structure and function of [Fe]-hydrogenase

2013 Shima, Seigo
Hydrogen (H2) plays a crucial role in global carbon cycles. Hydrogenases - H2 producing and utilizing enzymes - are pivotally involved in biological systems for the turnover of H2. Three types of hydrogenases are known: [NiFe]-, [FeFe]- and [Fe]-hydrogenases. The [Fe]-hydrogenase functions in the methanogenic pathway of hydrogenotrophic methanogenic archaea. This new type of hydrogenase contains a unique iron-guanylylpyridinol (FeGP) cofactor. We are studying the structure and function of both the enzyme and cofactor as well as the FeGP cofactor biosynthesis. more

Regulation of sessility and motility in Shewanella

2012 Thormann, Kai
Numerous bacterial species are motile and almost all of them are capable of forming sessile surface-associated communities, often referred to as biofilms. Both abilities are crucial for successful propagation and spreading in the natural environment. Using species of the soil and sediment bacteria Shewanella we study how these organisms regulate motility and biofilm formation to adapt to environmental conditions. more

Traces of DNA prove the test of strength between viruses and bacteria

2011 Randau, Lennart
Evolutionary Biology Microbiology
A nearly invisible battle rages on between Bacteria and Archaea on one side and viruses and other mobile elements on the other. This tug-of-war leaves its traces in the genomes of the involved parties and thus can be analyzed in respect of their co-evolution. One of the antiviral defense systems of Bacteria, the CRISPR system, contains pieces of viral DNA that provide direct insight into the history of previous viral attacks. Another indication of this battle is the disruption of transfer RNA genes used by viruses as attachment sites to facilitate their integration into the host genome. more
The key question of our research is how do new pathogens emerge and how fast can they adapt to new environments and host species. We investigate evolutionary processes during pathogen speciation and host specialization by comparison of 12 genomes of closely related grass pathogens. Agriculture strongly affects the rate of pathogen adaptation as crop species more rapidly accumulate beneficial mutations compared to its wild relatives. Analyses of more than 9500 genes facilitated the identification of candidate genes involved in speciation and host specialization of pathogens. more

Assembly and function of cell surface structures of archaea

2010 Albers, Sonja-Verena
Cell Biology Microbiology
Members of the third domain of life, the Archaea, exhibit a number of different cell surface structures which are similar in assembly and function to bacterial type IV pili. Type IV pili play an important role in surface motility and adhesion, DNA transfer and invasion of eukaryotic host cells. Archaeal type IV pili like filaments are build from a minimal set of subunits facilitating the progress of understanding the mechanism of how these and other bacterial type IV pili are assembled. more

Establishment of biotrophy in the Ustilago maydis maize interaction

2010 Döhlemann, Gunther
Genetics Microbiology Plant Research
The fungus Ustilago maydis is the causative agent of maize smut disease. During this biotrophic interaction, plant defense is suppressed immediately upon penetration. We identified the secreted effector-protein Pep1. Pep1 deletion mutants failed to suppress plant defense and are not able to colonize maize tissue. Therefore, Pep1 is an essential factor for the compatible interaction between U. maydis and its host plant. Elucidation of the Pep1 function will help to understand the molecular mechanisms that determine compatibility in biotrophic plant-fungal interactions. more

Regulation of cell division in Caulobacter crescentus

2009 Thanbichler, Martin
Cell Biology Microbiology
Recent advances in the study of bacterial cell biology have demonstrated that bacteria use complex regulatory mechanisms to ensure proper temporal and spatial regulation of cellular processes. In this article, the complexity of such systems is illustrated by the molecular pathway that coordinates chromosome segregation with cell division in Caulobacter crescentus. more

Regulation of developmental progression in Myxococcus xanthus

2008 Higgs, Penelope Ilsa
Cell Biology Microbiology
Myxococcus xanthus is a bacterium with multicellular behaviors: In nutrient-limited environments, the cells enter a developmental program leading to spore-filled fruiting bodies. Regulation of the program involves intra- and intercellular signals and coordination of distinct cell populations. To facilitate this behavior, the developmental program is comprised of unusual signal transduction systems that integrate multiple signals. more

Regulation of mitochondrial morphology during sexual development of Ustilago maydis

2007 Basse, Christoph W.
Cell Biology Genetics Microbiology
Sexual development of the phytopathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis is governed by the mating type loci a and b. The a2 locus genes lga2 and rga2 encode mitochondrial proteins, whose expression is coupled to the sexual cycle. These proteins compromise mitochondrial integrity and pathogenesis in the absence of the mitochondrial p32 family protein Mrb1. Lga2 interferes with mitochondrial fusion and together with Rga2 has a possible function in controlling mitochondrial inheritance. more

Denitrification – microbial communities and their functioning in the environment

2006 Braker, Gesche
Chemistry Climate Research Microbiology
Denitrifying microorganisms play a key role in the global nitrogen cycle. Denitrification is one of the main processes of this cycle and trace gases originating from it cause climatic effects. Application of molecular techniques in the field of microbial ecology allowed fundamental insights into diversity and structure of denitrifier communities. This is a prerequisite to understand the interrelationship of structure and function of denitrifier communities and the influence of parameters that drive the development of these microbial communities and their activity in the environment. more

A role for RNA-binding proteins implicated in pathogenic development of Ustilago maydis

2005 Feldbrügge, Michael
Cell Biology Developmental Biology Microbiology
Successful infection by the corn pathogen Ustilago maydis is accompanied by a number of morphological transitions that resemble simple developmental programs. Prerequisite for plant penetration is the formation of an infectious filament that exhibits polar tip growth and forms empty sections at its distal pole. In order to investigate the impact of RNA-binding proteins on such developmental processes, members of this protein class were identified according to sequence similarities with well characterized RNA-binding domains. Out of 94, 25 candidates were chosen and respective gene deletion strains were constructed and tested for pathogenic development. The loss of Rrm4, a protein with three N-terminal RNA recognition motifs (RRM) and a C-terminal protein interaction domain, resulted in reduced filamentation and virulence. Further analysis revealed that deletion strains form shorter, bipolar growing filaments. Subcellular localisation in vivo showed that Rrm4 forms particles that move bi-directionally along microtubules. Further mutational analysis of the various protein domains revealed that the N-terminal RNA contact regions RRM1 and RRM2 are most likely necessary to contact cargo whereas the C-terminal protein interaction domain is crucial for particle formation. These results indicate that Rrm4-containing particles transport RNA from the nucleus to the cell poles and that this process is important for unipolar tip growth of the infectious hyphae. A role for long distance transport of RNA along microtubules has already been implicated for embryo development and neuronal signal transmission. Our results obtained in U. maydis constitute the first example for long distance RNA transport in microorganisms indicating that the basic concept is evolutionarily more conserved than previously anticipated. more

Intercellular communication in bacteria

2005 Søgaard-Andersen, Lotte
Cell Biology Microbiology
Bacterial cells communicate extensively with each other using intercellular signaling molecules. In most cases these signals are small diffusible molecules and part of a communication system that helps the bacteria to assess population size. Analyses of the formation of the magnificently shaped, multicellular, spore-filled fruiting bodies in Myxococcus xanthus revealed a unique intercellular communication system in which the signaling molecule is a 17 kDa, non-diffusible, cell surface-associated protein. This signaling molecule is tailored to guide the slow moving cells of M. xanthus into the fruiting bodies and to coordinate temporally and spatially the two morphogenetic events, aggregation and sporulation, during fruiting body formation. more

Microbial Ecology of Termite Guts

2004 Brune, Andreas
Ecology Microbiology
The associations of insects with microorganisms are often related to a nutrient-poor or recalcitrant diet. There are many indications that the symbionts provide metabolic capacities unavailable to the host. The gut microbiota of termites is involved in cellulose degradation and plays important roles in further digestion and in the nitrogen budget. The highly structured microbial communities are also excellent model systems for the investigation of fundamental problems in microbial ecology. more
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