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Max Planck Florida's New CEO Discusses Research Focus

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The newly-announced scientific director and CEO of the Max Planck Florida Institute said the center will recruit up to 15 research group leaders or PIs among the 135 staffers it expects to be hired there over the next five years.

Michael Ehlers told GenomeWeb Daily News the research group leaders will join him and two other scientific directors yet to be recruited in shaping the research to be carried out at the first North American institute of the Max Planck Society, a Germany-based nonprofit network of 80 institutes, research units, and smaller working groups.

"It's still early days in the beginning of the institute, but I think the broad focus of the institute is on what I'm calling integrative biology and neuroscience, which is what the main goal of the institute is going to be to provide — to expand our knowledge of really fundamental biology by discovery of basic biological processes, through the development and application of innovative technologies," Ehlers said.

"The focus is going to be on the organization and function of cellular assemblies in the brain and other complex tissues. We will combine a number of approaches and employ expertise and technologies from neuroscience, cell biology, genetics, the physical sciences, [and] engineering, with a mind towards unexplored areas of biology," he added.

Ehlers spoke in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday, two days after Max Planck Florida announced his appointment, and those of the Florida institute's first two research group leaders to be named — Samuel Young, who will head the molecular neurobiology research group, and Jason Christie, who will pilot the synapse physiology research group. Ehlers sat on the search committee that identified them as top candidates.

"The model is really to provide a very focused — this is not going to be a big, large scale institute. We're talking about 15-18 laboratories," Ehlers said. "It's not going to be on the scale, for example, of a Janelia Farm [on the] HHMI campus. But it's going to be a focused, very vibrant and interactive environment where the scientists are given generous, ongoing support to conduct high impact, potentially high risk research at the cutting edge. They're given a lot of freedom and flexibility, where big aspects of their program need not be constrained by the priorities of external funding agencies."

Ehlers is now George Barth Geller professor at Duke University Medical Center's department of neurobiology, and an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His appointment to Max Planck requires approval from the Florida institute's Board of Trustees.

"It's an effort that's just starting," said Ehlers. "And for me this is a position that again will become more formalized in the coming months."

Ehlers said he was attracted to Max Planck Florida because of the similarities he found in the researchers and their approach to basic science with those he had seen at HHMI.

"It's kind of a level of science that's sort of a core philosophy of opening up the bottlenecks, where maybe others aren't looking, and that was really a key attraction to me," he told GWDN. "The other really attractive feature was just the novelty of the whole enterprise, I think the idea of being able to start a new institute, to be able to shape it in a way that you want, to be able to do that in the context of such an outstanding organization was extremely appealing to me."

At Duke, Ehlers led research focused on understanding the structure and circuitry of neurons in the brain, and their roles in learning and memory. Ehlers said he will continue that research at Max Planck Florida, where "in my lab, there will probably be 25 people or so. Some will join him in moving from Duke, while the remainder will be new hires.

"I kind of envision having my full setup here in my department in the next year and a half," he said.

Ehlers said his research would dovetail with that being carried out by Max Planck Florida's inaugural scientific director, Bert Sakmann, the 1991 Nobel laureate in medicine. According to the institute, Sakmann leads a research team focused on creating a 3D map of the normal brain, labeling different cell types with fluorescent markers and then imaging and quantifying the neuron distributions. Max Planck Florida expects the research will lay the foundation for future studies on Alzheimer's disease and other brain degenerative illnesses.

"In my lab, we're going to be expanding and synergizing with that, looking at aspects of neural systems and circuits and brain development and plasticity, and bringing to it a focus on cell biological regulation of neurons in the brain, using optics and cellular imaging," Ehlers said. "It's envisioned that this will encompass novel model systems, including genetic systems. There will be a big component of imaging and nanotechnologies and applications toward biological systems, as well as, I think, systems — neural systems and complex tissue systems development and evolution."

Ehlers and Max Planck Florida staffers will ultimately be based at a $60 million facility to be built on six acres donated by Florida Atlantic University on its John D. MacArthur campus in Jupiter, Fla., adjacent to the Scripps Research Institute campus that officially opened last year.

"Everyone here is very excited about interacting with the Scripps Florida scientists, and I have very close and good relationships with people there. I think it's going to be very exciting. We're already talking about joint things that we can do together," Ehlers said.

Ground for Max Planck Florida's permanent facility will be broken in August, marking the start of construction on the project, which is being funded with $94 million from the state of Florida's Innovation Incentive Fund, and another $94 million in subsidies and rent and fee abatements from a combination of FAU, Palm Beach County, and the town of Jupiter.

That funding includes the $60 million to be spent toward constructing the 100,000-square-foot facility, set to be completed "around the end of 2011 or the beginning of 2012," Ehlers said.

Max Planck Florida occupies temporary space at FAU's MacArthur campus. The space opened last year, capping an attraction effort that began in 2005, when Florida's then-Governor, Jeb Bush, and Scripps President Richard Lerner traveled to Germany and Switzerland to boost Florida's exports to Europe. During the trip, they visited Max Planck's Munich headquarters and met with the society's president, Peter Gruss. When they returned, state officials prepared a formal request for proposals from communities interested in wooing Max Planck, only to learn soon after that the society had set its sights on Palm Beach County.

The county's public-private Business Development Board of Palm Beach County followed up by showing society officials all of the county's parcels of land that could accommodate their needs; by presenting the project to FAU; and by winning support for incentives from the county and town.

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