Germany has long been one of the world’s leading exporters of discovery in the life sciences. Vaunted history aside, its research system has experienced its share of growing pains. In the 1990s, the federal expenditure on research and development dipped, and German scientists emigrated elsewhere in search of more prestigious pastures. Their move wasn’t entirely unjustified, as research spending at that time was at $500 per capita in Germany (compared with $800 in the US).
These days the R&D expenditure in Germany is at around 2.5 percent of the GDP. The country is aiming at achieving a 3 percent cut of the gross domestic pie by 2010, so federal bodies have been hustling to stimulate research in highly innovative areas such as genomics and bioinformatics.
But back in June 1999, the systematic problems were considered serious enough to prompt a federal inquiry into the state of research. At the government’s behest, an international panel of leading scientists convened and proposed reforms to improve what they called Germany’s “mixed reputation” in science. The panel recommended the revitalization of funding and the forging of partnerships between research institutes and universities.
Edelgard Bulmahn, who has been Germany’s federal minister of research since her appointment in 1998, was a strong proponent of the panel’s recommendations. Under her leadership, science in Germany is increasingly becoming an attractive and well-funded enterprise.
The Federal Ministry for Education and Research, known locally as the BMBF, is the primary source of research funding in Germany. The BMBF funds four major areas in human, plant, microorganism, and animal genomics. These concentrations are largely driven by research institutes in collaboration with universities and industrial partners.
One of the BMBF’s major genomics initiatives is the National Genome Research Network, which was conceived in 2001 to focus on human disease-oriented genome projects. About 300 research groups around the country contribute to the NGRN, which in turn has pledged €135 million in funding for projects from 2004 to 2007. For this period, the focus is on cancer, cardiovascular disease, infections and inflammation, diseases due to environmental factors, and diseases of the nervous system.
To lead its broad research program, the NGRN has snagged some impressive players. Friedrich Lottspeich, head of protein analysis in the Max-Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsreid, serves as the leader of NGRN’s proteomics research project. Martin Vingron, director of the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, is spearheading the bioinformatics side in collaboration with colleagues in Heidelberg and Munich.
Functional Genome Analysis within the Animal Organism, also known as FUGATO, is the ministry’s entry into the field of livestock genomics. By integrating transcriptomic, proteomic, and metabolomic approaches with traditional methods of animal breeding, FUGATO is charged with improving animal health and, consequently, the quality of livestock products. In 2004, the initiative selected six projects involving cattle, pig, and chicken species for funding support. HeDiPig, a project aimed at characterizing gene expression of hereditary diseases in the pig, is led by Klaus Wimmers at the Research Institute for the Biology of Farm Animals in Dummerstorf.
Plant genomics is addressed under the aegis of a project known as GABI, or Genome Analysis of the Biological System of Plants. The program was launched in 1999 and is funded at €10 million per year through 2007. Specific projects include molecular studies on Arabidopsis and barley, in addition to the functional genomics of crops important to German agriculture.
GABI’s projects may be of local significance, but the initiative has international ties as well, with partners in France, Canada, and the US. Its projects have resulted in significant contributions to Arabidopsis genomics, including a collection of sequence-indexed T-DNA insertion lines and a database of membrane proteins, as well as SNP information for 13 different accessions. Thomas Altmann, professor at the University of Potsdam and the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology at Golm, not only sits on GABI’s scientific committee but also works with the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee.
Moving further down the evolutionary scale, GenoMik, or the Genome Research on Microorganisms program, was created by the BMBF to analyze and sequence microorganisms with an eye toward combating infectious disease and shedding light on microbial processes that may prove useful for industrial applications. To this end, the ministry has set up three competence networks at €25 million for the study of microbial genomics and human health, biodiversity, agriculture, and biotechnology.
Most federal ministry payouts are allocated to large research organizations in the form of institutional grants. For these bodies, BMBF provides more than two thirds of the total award, while the rest is comprised of other federal and state funds.
One of the primary players in Germany’s research landscape is the Max-Planck Society for the Advancement of Science: an independent and non-profit research organization funded primarily by federal and state governments, but also from licensing fees and donations. The society’s raison d’être is to take on basic research that Germany’s universities are not equipped to address, either because they require more funds than are available or due to the interdisciplinary nature of the research project. Its 80 institutes are located throughout Germany (and sometimes beyond), and together comprise one of the country’s most distinctive and successful research bodies.
The Max-Planck Institutes have been called “Nobel factories,” as they’ve produced more than a dozen laureates since their founding 57 years ago. The institutes are each organized into research departments headed by directors, a position akin to a university’s full professor or department head. Directors are considered scientific members of the Max-Planck Society, itself a legally incorporated organization that operates a bit like a club, with voting rights and leadership. When the 1999 panel report came out with tips on how to improve the quality of research in Germany, institutes rallied to the ready: new centers were founded near universities, while interdisciplinary Max-Planck research groups were established at universities on a pilot program basis.
The institutes have a total staff of approximately 12,150 permanent employees, and a 2005 budget of €1.33 billion, 82 percent of which was from state and federal funds. To put the range of the institutes in perspective, the National Genome Research Network has projects at five Max-Planck outposts: MPI for Medical Research in Heidelberg, MPI Molecular Genetics in Berlin, MPI of Biochemistry in Munich, Dresden’s MPI of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, and MPI of Psychiatry in Munich.
Whereas Max-Planck Institutes cover basic research, the Fraunhofer Society focuses on applied science. With 58 institutes and a staff of 12,500, the Fraunhofer enterprise has an annual budget of more than €1 billion. Only about a third of this is from public coffers, while the rest is generated from contract research with industry. The Fraunhofer considers itself “a service company,” occupying a sort of middle ground between the free market and public enterprise. Its focus is on research that is commercially viable, but it also devotes federal money to projects that may require a longer incubation period — five to 10 years, say — before becoming commercially relevant.
When it comes to commercially viable applications to genomics, the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology is a good place to start. In addition to many bioengineering applications in its oeuvre, the Stuttgart-based institute has developed methods for automated sample prep in DNA diagnostics.
In addition to the larger institutions, the Helmholtz Association is a publicly supported institution comprised of 15 research centers. Researchers at one such center, the Max-Delbr ck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin-Buch, have just published the first extensive human protein interaction map, which includes 3,186 interactions. The German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, which is both Helmholtz Center and a core area in NGRN’s cancer network, has a research program that touches on basic cell biology as well as the use of high-throughput technologies and bioinformatics.