Research topics range from the study of molecular building blocks and of the cellular networks they form, through the development and ageing of organisms, to the description of ecosystems and elucidation of global element cycles. Many institutes pursue an interdisciplinary approach. For example, the Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen has the goal of elucidating cognitive processes. It applies a broad range of methods from the fields of mathematics, information science and the natural sciences to study the many aspects of this highly complex problem. Approaches extend from machine learning and the mapping of brain functions to the neurophysiology of cognitive processes and the psychophysical basis of human perception. This methodological and thematic breadth is characteristic of many institutes in the Section.
In spite of this thematic diversity, there is one research focus that has grown rapidly within the Section in recent years — primus inter pares — and in which 12 institutes are involved: neurobiology. Some institutes devote their attention entirely to this area, such as the Institute of Neurobiology, the Institute of Experimental Medicine, the Institute of Brain Research and the Institute of Psychiatry. Other institutes have taken up neurobiological topics in individual departments. These include the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, which studies the evolution of the olfactory sense in insects, the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, where scientists are investigating the neurobiological basis of behaviour in birds, and the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, which is driving the development of neuroelectronic systems involving the connection of nerve cells and semiconductor chips. The emergence of this neurobiological focus can be traced back to the decisive advances made at both the methodological and the conceptual level in the study of the molecular and cellular basis of the brain, which now hold the promise of a breakthrough in the understanding of high-level cognitive processes and the ‘holy grail’ of cognitive science: the human mind. At this interface between biology and the human sciences, it should come as no surprise that the research work carried out by the Max Planck Society is highly intersectional, involving strong cooperation between institutes of the Biology and Medicine Section and the Humanities Section. A prime example is the planning of a new Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, which will transcend sectional boundaries in studying the basis of aesthetic perception in humans.
Besides the establishment of focal areas, thematic renewal is a second essential mechanism through which the Section adapts its research portfolio to the newest scientific developments and societal challenges. Such renewal takes place both through the foundation of new institutes, like the afore-mentioned Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, and through the realignment of existing institutes. An example of the latter is the Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Plön, which has increasingly turned its attention towards evolutionary biology in recent years. Whereas the institute’s original profile lay in the field of hydrology, with a focus on tropical ecology and ecophysiology of aquatic environments, it embarked upon a new direction in 1999 with a Department for Evolutionary Ecology. This transition was reinforced in 2006 with the closure of the Ecophysiology Department and the establishment of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics. The institute consequently renamed itself as the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in 2007.
A priority in this Section’s activities in the past five years has been the foundation of two new institutes: the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne and the Max Planck Florida Institute in Jupiter in the United States.
The Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing was founded in 2007 with the objective of under-standing the natural process of ageing. Whereas numerous institutions across the globe study the clinical and pathological consequences of human ageing, the Cologne-based institute focuses on the fundamental, and as-yet inadequately understood, biological processes that control natural ageing in all living organisms. This institute’s emphasis is thus on basic research using genetic model organisms such as yeast, nematodes, fruit flies and mice. Three of the four planned departments have already taken up their work and the foundation stone of the new institute building was laid in May 2010.
The Max Planck Florida Institute was founded in 2008 as the first international institute of the Biology and Medicine Section. Its objective is to extend the frontiers of bioimaging, using the most advanced techniques to visualize molecular and cellular processes. The institute is fully funded by the US state of Florida, and by municipal and private American initiatives. The Section considers biological imaging to be an area of exceptional importance for the life sciences — one that is already pursued in individual departments at several institutes, and that now will benefit from a dedicated centre in the Max Planck Florida Institute. It is anticipated that the institute will provide this Section with better contact with cutting-edge American researchers and improve the international visibility of the Max Planck Society. The Max Planck Florida Institute is therefore an important element in the internationalization strategy of the Max Planck Society. This strategy has had a major impact on the society’s structure, as can be seen, for example, in the fact that more than one-quarter of the Scientific Members are already of international origin.
In addition to establishing new institutes, the Biology and Medicine Section has expanded its activities in the past five years through two associated research facilities. The caesar research center, founded in 1994 and operated by a non-profit organization under private law, was tied closely to the Max Planck Society during the course of its restructuring and alignment towards neurobiology in 2006. In 2008, a cooperation agreement with the Strüngmann family led to the foundation of the Ernst Strüngmann Institute, which will devote its attention to projects in medicine and the natural sciences — primarily in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Both of these research facilities have the same structure, appointment procedures and evaluation processes as Max Planck institutes. Their directors are Scientific Members of the Max Planck Society and are fully integrated into the Biology and Medicine Section.