Nerves and neurons: space for deep insights – Freie Universität Berlin

Without communication there is no communication, no reaction, no life. What applies in real life is especially true of its smallest unit – the cell. The cell only knows what to do when messenger substances or other cells stick to the tiny sugar structures on their surface, the glycans. Signal cascades are triggered internally via this contact, and a reaction usually follows immediately: Alarm! – If it’s a virus. Activation of cell metabolism – when a hormone is bound.

Neuron firing – when neurotransmitters hit. But how does it actually work when a neuron in the brain transmits a neural stimulus at lightning speed? What protein compounds and transport molecules are responsible for this?

Research on cell surfaces offers great potential for medicine

Cell surfaces are interfaces. What actually happens to them is still partly unclear. However, detailed knowledge of this can open up many new diagnostic and therapeutic possibilities for medicine. “Weak interactions, such as polyvalent electrostatic interactions, often occur at the surface,” explains chemistry professor Rainer Haag. Coronaviruses, for example, stick to the nasal mucosa and are held for a long time before entering cells.

in the new SupraFAB . Research Building At the Altensteinstraße in Dahlem, a joint facility of the Faculties of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy and Physics at Freie Universität Berlin, people want to take a closer look at the future. “The acronym SupraFAB stands for Super Molecular Functional Architectures at Biological Interfaces,” says their spokesperson Rainer Haag. “In addition to biological systems, this also includes research into the processes that occur on and between two-dimensional materials such as graphene, those thin individual layers of carbon.”

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The €48 million construction, funded equally by the Federal Government and the State of Berlin, provides unique opportunities to analyze the best structures and processes at the molecular level. Ten million of the construction amount was devoted to only modern large-scale equipment, such as the LT-STM-AFM – a high-resolution, low-temperature scanning atomic force microscope that uses individual atoms on the surface. It can be made visible and at the same time analyzed spectroscopically.

Thick concrete slab protects the building from vibration

Chemist Rainer Haag is also proud of NAP-XPS, an electronic X-ray spectrometer that can operate not only in a large vacuum but even under low water vapor pressure, so that the atomic composition of structures on biological surfaces can also be determined.

Work on such highly sensitive devices requires a very low-vibration building: therefore, it rests on a one-meter-thick concrete slab. A special 40-ton foundation on the air springs also separates the most sensitive equipment from external influences. SupraFAB is also fully electromagnetic shielded. Thus, distraction through SMS and messaging services is impossible. If you want to communicate via smartphone, you have to get out of the house.

What sets the light building apart, in which lots of partially recycled white concrete and light wood dominate, is the way it is used. There are no lecture halls nor practical rooms in the new building, only private laboratories and measurement rooms. Very pure search. Five to ten employees from a dozen working groups and five junior research groups will conduct research there, including 40 doctoral students funded by collaborative research centers and other research societies such as NeuroCure Excellence Group or the German-Canadian Graduate School “Charging a Future”.

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Biology, physics and chemistry converge in research

“We operate here in a mechanically well-equipped shell, but it is basically empty. There is no consistent funding for research and staff. It always has to be raised through third-party funds,” explains Rainer Hag. For now, the working groups are well covered. But you have to see that it will stay that way in the future. “That’s right, because of course we want to have a certain dynamic and not be looking for the same things in 20 years as we are today.”

Finding interfaces – this applies here also in a figurative sense. There are, of course, certain intersections in biology, physics and chemistry. But in the interfaces between disciplines, you also want to identify new and exciting topics and tackle them together.

The first step for this is the two main functions of researching the new building. Professor Kevin Bagel works between chemistry and biology. Using new mass spectrometric methods, he analyzed glycan structures on cell membranes and drew conclusions about specific recognition models. With his research – the synthesis of carbon nanomaterials and the analysis of the interactions of molecules with these surfaces – Professor Siegfried Eggler bridges the gap between chemistry and physics.

Communication is the key

The first-class equipment is also aimed at enhancing cooperation. It is available to all members of the University of Berlin Alliance and other research institutions in the city. There is already close cooperation with the nearby Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM), Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin – the joint medical department of Freie Universität and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin – and several Max Planck and Leibniz institutes.

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The connection behind it all is here. The architecture of the building was designed for this purpose: in addition to the many common areas and a large atrium where researchers constantly bump into each other, there are many seating areas and communication areas. There is also a “living room” where you can have a drink while chatting after work. If you can’t think of anything else, get a multidisciplinary dynamic in SupraSwing with two more people – a three-person swing by artist Katja Marie Voigt in the building’s garden.

Freie Universität Berlin is responsible for the content of this text.

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