A new home for excellent research

7 June 2012

The Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) is a new center for life sciences on the campus of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation is providing EUR 100 million over 10 years in support for running the project, while the state of Rhineland-Palatinate is financing the institute's construction and building. In a special tour given for the JGU MAGAZINE, Dr. Bernhard Korn, Director of Scientific Core Facilities and Technology, highlights the work completed to date.

The Science Lounge is elegant with a relaxed atmosphere. A large bar dominates the room, black cushions and green chairs create an atmosphere ideal for conversation, with the terrace opening on to an inner courtyard. "A total of six decentralized lounges were planned in the beginning," tells Dr. Bernhard Korn. "But the IMB founding director, Professor Dr. Christof Niehrs, voted for creating one central space for open communication within our different teams but also with the IMB management and administration. We also made the whole thing a little more representative so that guests can be properly received."

The central lounge also is the perfect spot to start a tour of the Institute of Molecular Biology, which has only recently been added to the university campus. The Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation set up this new center of excellence in 2009 and offers EUR 100 million over ten years to be invested in its scientific operation. One of the key prerequisites for the realization of the IMB was that the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate would create a home for the project that would attract top-level international research. The LBB, the estate and construction management agency for Rhineland-Palatinate, got down to work the very same year. In March 2011 the first phase of construction was completed and the building was ready to be occupied. The second phase is due for completion at the end of 2012. The state financed the whole project with more than EUR 50 million.

State-of-the-art technology for research

"The building is great, we are all very happy with the division of space inside," says Bernhard Korn. As Director of Scientific Core Facilities and Technology at the IMB he should know. He and his team make sure that the various technology platforms, the core facilities, which use state-of-the-art technology, are working and available to the scientists. The infrastructure in the building is therefore of paramount importance to Dr. Korn. He also knows about some problems that still need to be fixed, problems that are discussed in regular meetings held between the IMB, the LBB, and the facilities and estate units at JGU.

From the outside the three-story, brick building on Duesbergweg seems compact. Floor-to-ceiling windows give structure to the facade. The two structures on the roof incorporate a lot of technology. Symmetry was very important at the planning stage. The lounge on the second floor is in the middle of the building, as is the large lecture hall below. They are flanked by two glass-roofed inner courtyards. One serves as a foyer, while decorative trees bloom under artificial light in the other. The offices are located along the narrow sides of the rectangular building, with the laboratories situated on the long sides.

Core facilities combine their expensive equipment

Then we move on to the laboratories, to Korn's core facilities. "The method for structuring technology platforms comes from the Anglo-American sphere," he explains. Microscopes, large scientific equipment, and computers are no longer in the individual research departments. Instead the expensive high-tech equipment is pooled and concentrated in one location. "The equipment is very expensive and needs to be replaced every few years with next-generation models to keep everything state-of-the-art. Equipment management and capacity utilization are very important here."

At IMB, scientists are examining how genes control the development of an organism, what mechanisms are used to control DNA, and how DNA damage in individual cells is repaired. "We can isolate individual cells such as adult stem cells in our cytometer," tells Korn, giving an example of a technology platform. He presents an inconspicuous-looking box about a meter long, the capabilities of which are astonishing. "It can be used to analyze almost 100,000 cells a second and color them with up to 16 different dyes." The machine stands in a small, windowless measuring room. This is attached to a bright laboratory, which is followed by desks with a view outside through the floor-to-ceiling windows. All lab areas in the institute are structured using this three-room pattern. "Our employees really like it."

The institute with open doors

Onward to the microscopes. All the doors on the way there are open, in keeping with the IMB’s philosophy. "Communication and interaction between our teams is essential," emphasizes Korn, showing a macro-confocal microscope. On the one hand, it allows an object, such as a larva, to be viewed in its entirety. "From there you can also zoom down to the cell level without having to change the object you are looking at. In all of Germany there is one, maybe two, other examples of such microscopes."

One door is closed, however. Behind it is Professor Christoph Cremer's team who are carrying out research using very high-resolution microscopes. The optics specialist’s creations have reached resolutions of 10 to 20 nanometers. Standard devices, in contrast, can only manage 200 nanometers. The path to Cremer is closed off because he is known to use lasers once in a while during the course of his high-tech tinkering.

Trees have their price

Around the corner the offices start. "They are all the same size and well designed," Korn says concisely. He walks into a meeting room with a view of the atrium and the trees. "The trees are automatically supplied with water and nutrients. This costs almost as much as a doctoral student's studies." The trees definitely are the jewel in the crown for the LBB planners. However, as an IMB man, Korn would probably prefer the doctoral student.

The hall lined with offices to the right and left suddenly ends in a wooden partition, which blocks off the second stage of construction of the building. The building hull is complete but a lot still needs to be put inside. Korn then leads the way into the basement. As on the roof, facilities equipment dominates. Here gases for the labs are generated and the freezers have cells cooled to temperatures of up to minus 150 degrees Celsius. "Right now though, we can only use about half of them. The ventilation is not adequate yet." So there is still some work to be done.

More than 400 rooms covering 6,000 square meters

Bernhard Korn could show us more. Like the large lecture hall or the numerous other core facilities with their high-tech equipment. But with approximately 400 rooms covering 6,000 square meters, there is simply too much for one tour.

The tour ends at the reception area. "We can easily accommodate up to 250 employees. Right now there are about 90," says Korn before he rushes off to his next appointment. He still has a lot of work to do in this building stuffed with high-tech equipment – and the occasional glitch that is still to be worked on.