What are the applications for nanosciences

Max Planck Society and EPFL join forces in the nanosciences

The Max Planck EPFL Center for Molecular Nanosciences and Technology in Lausanne will research molecular nanomaterials and processes in order to use them for applications in medicine and technology

Life is not possible without nanotechnology. Nature has always relied on the principles that are now finding more and more technical applications. The Max Planck Society and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) set up the Max Planck EPFL Center for Molecular Nanosciences and Technology founded. The partnership includes the establishment of a laboratory in Lausanne, a joint doctoral school with summer courses and conferences as well as co-financed projects and doctoral theses. The cooperation agreement was signed by Max Planck President Peter Gruss and Patrick Aebischer, President of EPFL, on July 16.

The Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, for Solid State Research and for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart and the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin are involved in the Max Planck EPFL Center. Above all, the cooperation serves the common training of young scientists in the nanosciences and stands for the fruitful connection between nanotechnology and biotechnology. On the one hand, molecular nanotechnology is receiving a lot of stimuli from biology. Here as there, most of the structures are self-organized, and nanoscience also uses DNA and other biomolecules as building blocks or imitates natural materials and processes. On the other hand, nanotechnology opens up new possibilities in the life sciences, for example for the development of compact and efficient diagnostic instruments for medicine.

The research pursues two main thrusts: On the one hand, fundamental investigations aim to better understand the behavior of matter on the smallest scale and to develop new methods for controlling molecular interactions. On the other hand, the cooperation partners are treading new bionanotechnological paths to potential applications in medicine and pharmacology. In accordance with these objectives, the research activities concern different subject areas: from chemistry to materials science and from physics to bioengineering or electronics.

Molecular recognition is a central research topic

Molecular recognition is fundamental to biological processes and molecular nanoscience. In this respect, nature has reached a level of perfection that still sets the standard for technology: Enzymes always process the right substrate, antigen and antibodies always find each other reliably and cells are extremely sensitive to their environment. Since insights into molecular recognition advance nano- and biotechnology equally, their mechanisms represent a central research topic at the Max-Planck-EPFL Center. The scientists of the cooperation want to gain a better understanding of how molecules perceive each other and how they assemble into supramolecular structures by studying individual molecules, the interactions between molecules, and the structures and processes through which cells react to their environment and, in particular, to nanomaterials.

In order to examine individual biomolecules, the researchers use scanning probe microscopy, among other things, but are also specifically developing experimental methods for the analysis of sensitive biomolecules. By combining the experimental investigations with theoretical studies, they want to elucidate in detail, for example, how molecules transfer electrons - a process that takes place in many enzymes and is relevant for numerous technical applications such as the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen. In addition to this electrocatalysis, the scientists are also devoting themselves to photocatalysis, thanks to which plants, for example, use photosynthesis to store the energy of sunlight in sugar molecules. The mechanisms that play a role in this can also be used in photodynamic therapy against tumor cells and pathogens. In order to increase the efficiency of this treatment method, the scientists want to understand the photocatalytic processes exactly and research optimal materials for this application.

The interactions between biomolecules, such as those of antigens and antibodies, ligands and receptors as well as nucleic acids and proteins, form the second focus of the center's research spectrum. A precise understanding of this molecular interaction is the prerequisite for enabling more sensitive medical diagnostics for various biomarkers, but also for the computer-aided detection of new medical active ingredients. Another research aspect is the question of how molecules exchange energy: In many biological processes such as the generation of nerve signals, photosynthesis or muscle activity, biomolecules absorb energy and pass it on to other molecules. Scientists need to know this energy exchange in detail if, for example, they want to develop or improve catalytic processes based on nature's example.

The Max Planck EPFL laboratory will research the self-organization of nanomaterials

The interactions between biomolecules also play a role when cells perceive their environment and react to it - but by no means the only one. The scientists at the Max Planck EPFL Center also want to better understand how cells communicate with their environment. To this end, they analyze how cells behave on nanomaterials and how the corresponding signals are processed. Scientists in the cooperation observe how cells move over bristle-like arrangements of nanowires and measure the cellular forces in the process. These examinations should help to understand the growth of nerve cells after an injury, for example

In order to answer the diverse questions, the cooperation partners will research methods with which they can specifically produce and examine nanostructures. In addition, they will develop processes with which the materials and their properties can be simulated on the computer. At the Max Planck EPFL Laboratory for Molecular Nanosciences, which is a central element of the cooperation, scientists will create nanostructures in a bottom-up process. Under suitable conditions, molecules self-organize themselves into the desired structures, similar to the development of biomaterials. Which conditions are suitable for this will be a question that the researchers in Lausanne will investigate. In addition, the scientists will tailor the material properties, which are crucial for molecular recognition and the exchange of charge and energy, for different purposes.

The Max Planck EPFL Laboratory for Molecular Nanosciences is due to open on the EPFL campus in early 2013 and will initially employ one researcher and two doctoral students. In a joint doctoral school, the next generation of scientists is to be trained under ideal conditions in a collaboration between Germany and Switzerland. About twenty PhD students are taught joint courses and research projects, with the Center funding six PhD theses. In addition, as many post-docs should be part of the program. In the first year the program will have a budget of 960,000 euros and from the third year 1.4 million euros, half of which will be financed by both institutions.