Helmholtz Monthly 01/24
Science needs an open society
Supervisory Board Elects Jan S. Hesthaven President of KIT
More targeted cancer therapy through passenger genes
Three questions for Infection Researcher Chunlei Jiao
Sustainable agriculture needs a different agricultural policy - Bartosz Bartkowski‘s point of view
Dear Readers,

The new year begins as it ended: Turbulently. Large parts of the country experienced flooding. We must prepare ourselves for more extreme weather, be it floods or droughts. Farmers are protesting against planned cuts and dissatisfaction with agricultural policy. Environmental economist Bartosz Bartkowski of the UFZ assesses the situation in our “Point of view” section and offers concrete solutions. In recent days and weeks, many Helmholtz Association employees have also taken part in demonstrations against anti-democratic efforts. Research needs diversity to be innovative. Research also needs freedom, which is the foundation of democracy. And freedom will also be discussed and debated in the Science Year 2024 – constructively, of course.

Franziska Roeder, Multimedia Editor
Talk of the Month
Science needs an open and pluralistic society
  Right-wing populism and anti-democratic movements are among the threats to the scientific system, and not just since the publication of Correctiv’s research. Many employees of the Helmholtz Association have participated in the numerous demonstrations of the past days and weeks. We are convinced that anyone who excludes or even wants to expel people is not only acting inhumanely and forgetting history: They also damage Germany’s ability to face the future. After all, innovative research and development require a broad diversity of ideas and talents if we are to solve the great challenges of our time together.
Science Year launched under the banner of freedom
  The crises of our time are putting freedom under increasing pressure. Internationally, but also here in Germany, where, after 75 years of the Basic Law, we have become accustomed to living in a free and open society. Technological developments such as artificial intelligence can restrict freedom, but they can also promote it. The BMBF is dedicating the Science Year 2024 to the topic of freedom. It wants to stimulate debate and encourage controversy, because controversy is a constructive force in democracy, as Federal Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger emphasized at the kick-off event in Berlin.
BMBF budget for 2024 has been approved
  The Budget Committee approved the BMBF’s budget for 2024 at its adjustment meeting. Actually, the budget politicians should have met in mid-November, but the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court made it necessary to draw up a new supplementary budget. Cuts to battery research turned out to be less severe than feared. The committee also approved additional funding for the Ministry of Transport’s planned demonstration platform for power-to-liquid fuels in Leuna, which was on the verge of collapse. A savings amount of 200 million euros, which the ministry intends to achieve through global underspending, remains open.
What are the grand challenges of our time? And what solutions are we developing at Helmholtz? Discover our challenges 
Helmholtz Community
World Economic Forum in Davos
  Like every year, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum took place in Davos in mid-January. For five days, representatives from politics, business and academia discussed the most pressing issues of our time. The topic of artificial intelligence was omnipresent this year. Helmholtz Association President Otmar D. Wiestler was also there to contribute to the scientific perspective, especially on the topic of health and AI. Read more on the World Economic Forum’s blog about how tandem solar cells can accelerate the energy transition.
Supervisory Board Elects Jan S. Hesthaven President of KIT
  The research university of the Helmholtz Association has a new president. On Tuesday, the Supervisory Board of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT elected the Danish mathematician Jan S. Hesthaven. The KIT Senate still has to confirm the decision at its meeting in February. Hesthaven studied computational physics and earned his doctorate at the Technical University of Copenhagen. He is currently Vice President for Academic Affairs at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.
38 million euros for brain research
  Good news for European brain research: The EU will continue to fund the EBRAINS research infrastructure with €38 million up to and including 2026. The platform, which emerged from the Human Brain Project, which will end in 2023, enables the complexity of the human brain to be explored at different levels using digital methods and to develop technical applications. The successful application was coordinated by Jülich brain researcher Katrin Amunts.
Antje Boetius in the Research Committee
  There is hardly any other place in the world where the consequences of climate change are so clearly visible as in the Arctic. The Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute Antje Boetius reported on this to the Committee on Education and Research. She focused in particular on the results of the MOSAiC expedition. From October 2019, the research icebreaker Polarstern will be drifting through the ice in the Arctic winter, providing researchers with unique insights into the complex interactions between the Arctic and the global climate system.
Helmholtz Excellence Networks

With the Excellence Networks, Helmholtz supports scientists from Helmholtz Centers who are involved in new proposals for Clusters of Excellence. Support is provided both in the application phase for the new proposal and in the actual project phase after approval in order to better position the project. Applications can be submitted from February 1, 2024 until March 15, 2024. Go to the call for proposals

More targeted cancer therapy through passenger genes
A tumor often arises when cancer genes multiply. In this process, additional genes act as hitchhikers, potentially creating previously unknown vulnerabilities that open the door to new therapeutic approaches.

Genetic alterations are widely recognized as a leading cause of cancer. These are often amplifications involving the duplication of genes that promote cancer development, such as oncogenes and their enhancer elements. These genes are copied excessively and are then present in large numbers either within the genome or as separate DNA rings.

“Specifically, the cell not only duplicates cancer genes but also copies the preceding and succeeding sections of DNA,” explains Professor Anton Henssen, head of the research group “Genomic Instability in Pediatric Tumors” at the Experimental and Clinical Research Center (ECRC). “These co-copied sections often contain additional genes, previously considered inconsequential to cancer development and thus termed “passenger genes.”

Collaborating with Dr. Jan Dörr, also a pediatric oncologist at Charité and a researcher at ECRC, the scientists demonstrated that these genetic hitchhikers are more than mere silent passengers in the study published in the journal “Cancer Discovery.” They disrupt fundamental processes within the cell, causing the tumor cell to become dependent on processes unrelated to tumor growth. “This creates an Achilles’ heel at a completely unexpected location that was previously unknown” remarks Henssen. “By targeting passenger genes in treatment, we can attack cancer from a new angle.".

The researchers illustrated how these previously unknown dependencies could be therapeutically exploited, using neuroblastoma as an example. Neuroblastoma, a particularly aggressive cancer affecting young children, was shown to be much more susceptible to the approved cancer drug rapamycin in mice, when both the cancer gene MYCN and the passenger gene DDX1 were present in high numbers. "The passenger gene disrupts the tumor cell's metabolism,” Dörr explains. “The cell has to compensate for the disruption, and rapamycin prevents this. This ultimately leads to the death of the tumor cell."

Treating neuroblastoma with rapamycin, in addition to other drugs, could potentially benefit patients whose tumors have amplified both the cancer and passenger genes. The researchers plan to confirm this finding in clinical studies. Henssen and Dör consider the approach of targeting tumors, including their passenger genes, promising for other cancer types as well.

Original publication:

(Image: Henssen lab, Max Delbrück Center)


Largest volcanic eruption in the Aegean more than 500,000 years ago
Around the Greek island of Santorini, researchers from the Geomar Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel have found evidence of the largest volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea. 520,000 years ago there was a powerful undersea volcanic eruption. Newly discovered huge pumice deposits in the region show that the volcanic field in the distant past was much more explosive than previously known. Read more

One of 45.000

Chunlei Jiao is a former PhD student and currently a postdoc in the Chase Beisel Lab at the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI), focusing on the development of CRISPR-based technologies for human well-being, for which he received the Helmholtz Doctoral Prize last July. He will begin his new career as an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) this summer. (Photo: HIRI/Luisa Macharowsky)

What is the most exciting thing about your job?

What excites me the most is the potential translational impact that my research work can have. I work at the interface of fundamental research and practical applications to develop new technologies for disease diagnostics and therapeutics, which could make a tangible difference in people’s daily lives.

If money and time were no object, what would your next project be?

If resources were limitless, I might lead a project advancing AI-driven personalized medicine, involving the use of artificial intelligence and big data to develop new tools for precise targeted diagnostics and treatments based on individual genetic profiles.

Who would you like to have dinner with and what would you talk about then?

If I were to have dinner with Louis Pasteur and Anthony Fauci, two influential figures in the history of medicine and public health, we would delve into the challenges faced in different eras, the evolving approaches to vaccination and disease surveillance, and the ongoing quest for scientific innovation in addressing public health crises.

Point of View
Sustainable agriculture needs a different agricultural policy
Since the German government wants to cut the subsidy for agricultural diesel, farmers have been rallying across the country in noisy protests. They complain that the financial burden is too great. What is behind the farmers’ anger? Environmental economist Bartosz Bartkowski of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ assesses the current situation.

In terms of climate policy, the abolition of the agricultural diesel subsidy makes sense in principle. However, abolishing it ’overnight’ was certainly premature. It also remains unclear why this climate-damaging subsidy was abolished and others weren’t, be it the company car privilege or the tax exemption on kerosene.

In my opinion, however, the massive protests by farmers in January were not so much about this specific measure. Rather, they are an expression of a more fundamental dissatisfaction with the agricultural policies of the European Union and the German government in recent years.

To understand this anger, it helps to look at the challenges facing agriculture today. It must become more multifunctional, i.e., it must not only produce food, but also contribute to maintaining an intact environment as a public good. This includes preserving cultural landscapes and protecting biodiversity and ecosystems so that they can continue to provide important services such as climate regulation and flood protection.

This requires government incentives, for example in the form of minimum standards that all farms must meet, incentive taxes, such as a tax on the use of pesticides or fertilizers, and agri-environmental payments to reward biodiversity-promoting flower strips. These incentives would need to be embedded in an agricultural policy framework for sustainable agriculture. The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), as the main instrument of European and German agricultural policy, could play a decisive role here by linking its payments more closely than before to a responsible approach to climate and the environment. Despite selective improvements, however, the CAP falls short of the sustainability standards that Germany and the EU have set themselves. It would also make sense to implement existing proposals from research and practice to improve agri-environmental payments and to test alternative policy instruments more boldly, such as a pesticide tax or investment subsidies.

The latter measure in particular could have great potential, as climate change will force farms to adapt and invest in the medium term. This creates a window of opportunity in which well-chosen incentives can support agriculture in pursuing both climate adaptation and environmental protection. To do this, governments need to promote the right measures and investments. For example, it would be important to reduce the intensity of soil cultivation, which would allow the soil to store more water. Another approach would be to increase the diversity of crops grown.

However, farms have very limited room for maneuver. This is due to the market structure, with few buyers of agricultural products, but also down to consumers, who focus on a few crops, for example, and have little tolerance for deviations from the norm in terms of taste, shape or color. Under these conditions, farms cannot adapt their strategies at will.

New incentives are needed not only for farmers, but also for consumers. The same is true for the food processing and retail sectors, which have considerable market power and influence. A successful agri-environmental policy requires that these stakeholders also move more in the direction of sustainability. I suspect that with a comprehensive and clearly communicated strategy for agricultural policy, most farmers would also accept the removal of climate-damaging subsidies, such as subsidies for agricultural diesel.

(Photo: Sebastian Wiedling/UFZ)

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