The pillars of life

The Max Planck Queensland Center will explore extracellular matrices and their importance for medicine, ecology, and technology

February 03, 2022

Extracellular matrices are found in almost all living things and carry out various functions that could also become medically, ecologically, and technically relevant. However, relatively little research has been done on them. The scientists who joined forces in the Max Planck Queensland Center (MPQC) for the Materials Science of Extracellular Matrices at the beginning of 2022 want to change that. Extracellular matrices are not animate but can nevertheless provide cells with support, respond to changing environmental conditions, and store information that stimulates or inhibits cell growth. In various projects, different teams of the MPQC will investigate how the composition and order of these pillars of life enable their diverse functions.

The projects of the Max Planck Queensland Center are as diverse as the occurrence and functions of the extracellular matrices (ECM) surrounding the cells. But they all have one thing in common: “The basic idea of the Max Planck Queensland Center is to study biological materials that are inanimate but which can still sense and adapt to their environment. These ECM carry information for the cells they support,” says Peter Fratzl, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces and one of the two Co-Directors of the new center. “With this, we want to put a new area on the research map and not simply focus on biomedical applications”.

The MPQC brings together the Max Planck Institutes of Colloids and Interfaces and of Intelligent Systems with the Queensland University of Technology. On 1 January 2022, the Center began work on seven different projects and will initially run for five years. “The Max Planck Queensland Center is the first Max Planck Center with Australian research facilities," says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann. “There our scientists have partners with whom they can develop and decisively advance a promising field of research. So far, research has not given extracellular matrices the attention worthy of their biological importance”.

Relevance for oncology, ecology, and robotics

A more precise knowledge of how the composition and structure of ECM influences their functions is relevant not only for biomedical applications and a better understanding of biological systems but also for technical applications – for example in robotics or architecture. “Biomimicry is a 21st century approach to science and innovation that intends to find sustainable solutions to challenges of civilisation that emulate design patterns and strategies that have been long established by nature,” says Dietmar W. Hutmacher, professor at Queensland University of Technology and Co-Director of the Max Planck Center.

Extracellular matrices consist of proteins, carbohydrates, and other biopolymers. Their functions are used by most living beings – albeit for different purposes. In the human organism, for example, they signal to cells which tissue they belong to. However, ECMs are also involved in tumour growth and the spread of metastases. “In one of the projects, we want to better understand in which biophysical and biochemical characteristics the extracellular matrices of healthy and diseased tissue differ in order to find possible new approaches for cancer therapy,” says Fratzl.

In plants, biopolymers take on many tasks that would normally be expected only of living tissue. This is how the seed capsules of the iceplant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum open when cellulose swells in their lids during rain. The seeds of the plant, which grows in extremely dry areas, thus get the best possible chance to thrive. The ecological significance of the ECM of plants is not the only topic of the MPQC. In one project, researchers want to transfer the findings on ECMs to the construction of robots that will move like animals or humans. “Our physically intelligent bio-inspired soft materials and robotics research activities as well as our facilities will be a valuable contribution to the study of cellular and tissue biomechanics in unprecedented ways,” says Metin Sitti, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. “Also, we envision the bioengineering and biomechanics research activities of the center to pave the way for the most innovative bio-inspired and bio-hybrid soft biomedical robots”.

Young talent for a young research field

Two other projects of the Center could also become technically relevant – even though their subject matter seems far removed from this for the time being. Biofilms of bacteria are considered more of a problem from a hygienic point of view. However, special biofilms are interesting materials that could, for example, influence the indoor climate in architecture. The essential element of a biofilm is that the bacterial colony is embedded in an ECM, which the micro-organisms form primarily from long sugar chains. In order to be able to control the formation of biofilms, the MPQC researchers first want to understand which biochemical factors play a role in this. “The aim is to adapt the material properties to technical requirements as far as possible with the help of micro-organisms,” says Cécile Bidan, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, who will be researching this topic at the MPQC. To this end, the MPQC researchers will also synthetically generate the ECM of biofilms. Martina Delbianco and her working group at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces will synthesize the polysaccharides of ECM. Then, at the MPQC, they will investigate how changes in the polysaccharides can control and optimize the settlement of certain bacteria and the properties of biofilms.

In addition to advances in the understanding, control, and application of ECM, the MPQC is also committed to the education and training of junior scientists. The Center will train experts who are to become world leaders in the young field of bioengineering. “We envision two symbiotic aims: On the one hand, we want to establish a world leading interdisciplinary research program in basic science and applied research on extracellular matrices,” says Hutmacher. “On the other hand, we want to unlock and mentor the potential of the upcoming 21 century leaders in bioengineering which will deliver significant scientific, societal and economic impact over this decade and into the distant future”. The pillars of life could then also acquire the significance beyond biology that they have always had for living beings.


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