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Max Planck Florida Breaks Ground on Permanent Site, Plans Fourth Research Group

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The Max Planck Florida Institute, which broke ground this week on its permanent facility in Jupiter, Fla., plans to launch a fourth research group in September focused on astrocytes, the executive in charge of establishing the institute said.

Claudia Hillinger, Max Planck Florida's vice president for institute development, told GenomeWeb Daily News the group will be led by a researcher who has already been identified for the post. The researcher's name isn't being disclosed pending the completion of the hiring process and a future announcement by the institute.

Last year, Max Planck researchers joined with an international team in publishing results in Nature Neuroscience showing that the star-shaped astrocytes that enclose parts of nerve cells and single synapses in the brain affected the synapses' ability to strengthen, and thus help to facilitate learning and remembering. The finding is expected to aid in basic research of diseases such as epilepsy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Previously, astrocytes were thought to have had their main role in the development and nutrition of the brain's nerve cells.

The astrocyte group will join three research groups already created at Max Planck Florida Institute, reflecting its focus on neurosciences and integrative biology.

The digital neuroanatomy group is led by Bert Sakmann, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and the institute's inaugural scientific director. The group is conducting a program dedicated to creating a three-dimensional map of the normal brain. The molecular neurobiology group led by Samuel Young Jr. And the synapse physiology group, set to start operation in July after its leader Jason Christie finishes moving his laboratory's equipment to Max Planck Florida.

"When we talk about functional neurosciences, I think [the astrocyte group] is another piece of the puzzle that complements our overall vision for the institute," Hillinger said.

She added that no timeframe has been established for determining what topics the other research groups will focus on, let alone for creating those groups.

Hillinger spoke Tuesday in an interview, hours after joining Max Planck Society President Peter Gruss and officials from and the governments of Florida, Palm Beach County, and the town of Jupiter, Fla., in a groundbreaking ceremony for the institute's permanent facility.

The 100,000-square-foot facility will rise on the MacArthur Campus of Florida Atlantic University, which donated six acres to the institute for the project. More than half the space, 57,600 square feet, will consist of laboratory space for the 15 research groups envisioned as being based there.

The research groups will work on projects for five years, with the option for an extension for two to three years. Overseeing the research groups — to be divided among three departments — will be three scientific directors. Max Planck is seeking candidates for one of the three scientific director positions.

Another of the scientific director positions was thought to have been filled when the institute announced in February it intended to appoint Michael Ehlers, who at the time was George Barth Geller professor at Duke University Medical Center's department of neurobiology, and an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Earlier this month, Hillinger confirmed, Ehlers opted against taking the Max Planck position, and instead joined Pfizer, which on June 8 announced his appointment as its chief scientific officer for neuroscience research.

The institute also envisions basing groups of visiting scientists within six guest labs that are part of the Florida facility. Those groups' laboratories will work on projects running from half a year to two to three years, depending on the project, Hillinger said.

Max Planck Florida will sport three wings devoted to research, and a 60-foot-high glass atrium directly connected to an outdoor terrace on the second floor, designed to provide a central gathering space. A 100-seat auditorium, conference rooms, lounges and administration offices will be located around an open lobby that will connect the facility's three floors.

"We think we'll be finished by March 2012 — that's the target date — and then we'll give it another two months to test the building and see that everything is working okay before we actually move our equipment in. May 2012 is our target occupancy date," Hillinger told GWDN.

Max Planck Florida now occupies a 40,000-square-foot temporary space on the FAU campus, which like the new facility is near the Scripps Research Institute campus that officially opened last year. Max Planck has started talks with Scripps' neuroscience department chair, Ron Davis, toward creating research collaborations, with discussions in early stages, Hillinger said.

Max Planck Florida is the first North American institute of the Max Planck Society, a Germany-based nonprofit network of 80 institutes, research units, and smaller working groups. The society has an international staff of about 20,400, including research fellows and visiting scientists, and an annual operating budget of $1.8 billion.

Max Planck's Florida institute is being funded with $94 million from the state of Florida's Innovation Incentive Fund, while Palm Beach County agreed to spend $86.9 million for permanent facility construction and operations — including the $60 million facility cost.

In addition to the land donation, valued at $6.3 million, the institute benefited from rent concessions for the temporary facility by FAU, as well as Jupiter's waiving of $260,000 in impact fees.

Max Planck is among a half-dozen research institutes that have been showered with more than $1 billion in economic incentives by state and local officials. They have maintained that their governments will recoup the expense over several years in new jobs, taxes, and economic activity — while many residents have argued the incentives unfairly benefit the institutions at taxpayer expense.

Hillinger said Max Planck plans to sustain its Florida operations once the incentives run out in 2018 with funds it will raise through a foundation now pursuing approvals with the US Internal Revenue Service.

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