Prof. Markus Zweckstetter from the Göttingen site of the DZNE will receive 500,000 Euros for a research project in which he will analyze the origin of the genetic code.
The international project "A Novel Complementarity at the Heart of Biology" will be funded for the next five years from the Volkswagen Stiftung as part of the funding initiative "Life? – A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life ". In addition to the DZNE, the University of Hamburg and the University of Vienna are involved in this cooperative project. Of the 1.5 million total budget, Prof. Zweckstetter will receive 500,000 euros.
Researching the "building instructions" of genes
The project, which is now starting, will study the structure and possible origin of the genetic code. The genetic code controls the development of a living being. For example, it determines whether a person has curly or straight hair or "inherits" an inherited, congenital disease - such as certain forms of brain disease - from one parent.
"This 'program' applies to all living beings - whether bacteria, mice, fish, tigers or humans. This is why we also speak of the universal genetic code," explains Markus Zweckstetter. He and his research group at the DZNE will investigate in the project how this code could have been created: "It developed billions of years ago. We now want to find out how this code developed and thus build a bridge from the past, from the origin of life, to the present". For this reason, the researchers will conduct experiments with biotechnologically produced proteins in the laboratory. These proteins were artificially produced with the help of an intestinal bacterium. The research team wants to analyze how proteins bind to nucleic acids (DNA, RNA) in the genetic code - and why each protein has a perfectly fitting nucleic acid counterpart. To do this, the scientists also use biophysical methods such as NMR spectroscopy and light microscopy. "Our findings could potentially benefit future therapies for hereditary brain diseases that directly target DNA or RNA in the genetic code and prevent the disease-containing information contained therein from being converted," says Zweckstetter.
The funding initiative "Life? – A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life" was launched in 2015. Till 2020 36 projects, mainly international joint projects, totaling 48 million euros, have been funded. In the coming years the funding focus will be on status symposia fostering scientific exchange and networking among the groups funded.