CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology

CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology

About the Institute

The Partner Institute for Computational Biology (PICB) is legally and administratively an institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Organisationally, it belongs to the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences (SIBS) , the largest CAS campus for biological sciences. The Institute has been modelled on the Max Planck institutes and, just like them, it is evaluated by an international Scientific Advisory Board once every two years.

The Institute is a pilot project for an institutional commitment by the Max Planck Society in China. During its start-up phase (2005−2012), a third of the funding came from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Since then, the Max Planck Society has been funding this contribution to strengthen specific programmes on the promotion of junior scientists and scientific projects of the Max Planck Institutes. Two thirds of the Institute’s budget is provided by CAS.

Research areas

The Institute works at the interface between biology, theory and modelling. Special attention is given to the modelling of complex processes in molecular networks and cell systems using computer-assisted calculation methods. The simulation of complex cellular processes can lead to a deeper understanding of processes in human organs and also contribute to the development of new medications. The research scope is wide and touches upon fields such as evolutionary biology, genome analysis and population genetics, mathematics, statistics and the development of algorithms, as well as computer-assisted neurobiology.

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Philipp Khaitovich and his colleague Zhang Xiaoyu examine tissue samples from humans and monkeys to discover why different species have different life spans.
Philipp Khaitovich and his colleague Zhang Xiaoyu examine tissue samples from humans and monkeys to discover why different species have different life spans.

The first generation of directors and research groups focused on the following subject areas:

  • mathematical evolutionary theory
  • scientific visualisation
  • population genetics and human evolution
  • comparative and regulatory genomics
  • protein structural analysis
  • system biology of plants

Since the appointment of Klaus Gerwert (2008), there has been a greater focus on the area of protein structural analysis and new aspects of visualisation have been established at the PICB. Genome research was boosted further with the appointment of Jackie (Jing-Dong) Han (2010) and Philipp Khaitovich (2012) and age research was introduced as a subject to be examined from a systems biological perspective at the PICB.

Institute management / Directors

Since September 2010, geneticist and bioinformatician HAN, Jing-Dong (Department of Molecular Systems Biology)  has been heading the institute as Managing Director. Having made essential contributions to the explanation of the protein-protein interaction network, her work now focuses on the study of gene networks which are important for the development and the ageing process of an organism.

Philipp Khaitovich (Department of Comparative Biology) was head of a Max Planck Research Group at the PICB for six years before he was appointed Director in 2012. He originally worked at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and works in the area of comparative genetics. In his research, he focuses on the molecular mechanisms of cognitive evolution and the mechanisms of lifespan regulation.

Martin Vingron(Department of Regulatory Genomics), Director at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, has been working as an Interim Director at PICB since 2006. He heads a group there that studies gene regulation, signal transduction, and gene networks.

Former Directors

The Founding Director of the Institute in 2005 was mathematician Andreas Dress (Department of Combinatorics and Geometry). He headed the institute from 2005 until 2010. His main scientific interest, besides molecular evolution, was proteomics – the study of all proteins in cells, tissues or organisms.

Klaus Gerwert (Department of Biophysics) is the full-time head of the Department of Biophysics at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Since 2009 he has been involved in projects running at PICB focusing on mechanisms that determine protein folding, protein reactions and interactions, as well as membrane bound protein networks.

Max Planck Research Groups

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The four Research Group Leaders at the 2009 Institute Evaluation (from left to right): Yan Jun, Zhu Xinguang, Frauke Gräter, and Philipp Khaitovich.
The four Research Group Leaders at the 2009 Institute Evaluation (from left to right): Yan Jun, Zhu Xinguang, Frauke Gräter, and Philipp Khaitovich.

Based on the Max Planck Society’s model of independent junior research groups, independent, temporary research groups, established for a period of five years, were initially set up at the partner institute.  These units are now actual Max Planck research groups. The following scientists currently work at the PICB:

YAN Jun (Functional Genomics Group) and his team concentrate on large-scale computational analysis of high-throughput genomic data to understand the molecular mechanisms involved in complex physiological processes, such as animal hibernation and the circadian rhythm of mammals. He cooperates with Gregor Eichele, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

Plants are the most important source of food of our society. That is why ZHU Xinguang (Plant Systems Biology Group), originally from the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois (USA), is fascinated by the mechanisms that drive the growth of foliage and their photosynthesis. He works closely with Lothar Willmitzer from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Golm.

XU Shuhua and WANG Sijia joined the PICB in 2012. XU Shuhua heads up the Population Genomics Group (PGG). The aims of this group are to investigate the evolutionary dynamics of genomes at population level using computational approaches and to bridge the gap between evolutionary history and genomic medicine. WANG Sijia (formerly of Harvard University) conducts research on the biology of the skin and skin appendages from a molecular genetics perspective. Due to a special grant from foundation funds, his group is known as the Paul Gerson Unna Research Group at the Max Planck Society.

International Max Planck Research School

The Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Freie Universität Berlin and the PICB together established an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) to support the education of doctoral students. Within the framework of this IMPRS, joint summer schools are held alternately in Shanghai and Berlin and a student exchange programme has been launched.

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