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Research funds for measuring the speed of life – Volkswagen Foundation supports research project to study the time component of life cycles using stem cells

"OntoTime – measuring and modulating of the Timescales of Life" – in this research project Dr. Micha Drukker and Dr. Carsten Marr from Helmholtz Zentrum München together with Dr. Christian Schröter from Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology will investigate the origin of time span differences in the life cycles of different mammalian species. As part of their research initiative "Life? - A new view of the natural sciences on the fundamental principles of life" the Volkswagen Foundation will fund this project with 1.5 million euros.

©Van Hope, Fotolia

All multicellular organisms undergo characteristic life cycles of development, maturation and ageing. The duration of the whole life cycle and each of its phases differs substantially between species. In humans, about 9 months elapse between conception and birth, and it takes another 11 - 16 years to reach sexual maturity and full adult size. Small mammals like mice in contrast complete their whole life cycle in just a few weeks. To find out which processes are hidden behind this phenomenon, the researcher now want to investigate the control of developmental timescales that are at the beginning of the life cycle.

It is known that the time span of development is largely determined by the speed with which cells with specific functions, such as muscle or neurons, develop from the less specialized cells of the early embryo. This process of cell specialization is controlled by the activation or suppression of certain genes. How fast genes are switched on or off depends on regulatory networks and biochemical reactions within the cell, as well as on influences from the outside, such as cell density, metabolism or pharmacological substances.

Measuring the speed of cell differentiation

To determine the role of different factors for the speed of cell specialization, the teams of Christian Schröter from Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology and Micha Drukker and Carsten Marr from Helmholtz Zentrum München, will study induced pluripotent stem cells from different mammalian species with vastly different life spans.

“Pluripotent stem cells resemble cells of the early embryo and can be maintained and expanded infinitely in the culture dish. These cells have the remarkable potential to specialize into any cell type of the adult body, with a speed that mimics the speed of cell specialization in the embryo. This gives us a unique tool to quantify the developmental speed of different organisms at the cellular level, and will enable us to identify and ultimately manipulate its genetic and biochemical basis”, explains Drukker the methodology.

"By joining our resources and expertise in the field of stem cell research, video microscopy, the determination of gene activity by single cell transcriptomics and the analysis of biological data by computational analysis and modelling approaches, we hope to better understand the origin of the time component of the life cycle," says Christian Schröter, initiator of the project. In the long run, the results of the project may also be relevant for the application of pluripotent stem cells in medicine.

Further information

With its initiative “Life? – A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life” the Volkswagen Foundation aims to support unique and excellent projects at the interface between the natural and life sciences. Funded projects should help to better understand the fundamental principles of life and thus open up intriguing and novel perspectives on life to complement the philosophical view.

Since the initiative was set up in 2015, 29 applications with a total of around 38.4 million euros in funding have now been approved after 3 deadlines. In June 2019, the Board of Trustees of the Volkswagen Foundation approved 8 projects from 95 applications with a total funding amount of around 11 million euros. www.volkswagenstiftung.de/en

TheInstitute of Stem Cell Research (ISF) investigates the basic molecular and cellular mechanisms of stem cell maintenance and differentiation. From that, the ISF then develops approaches in order to replace defect cell types, either by activating resting stem cells or by re-programming other existing cell types to repair themselves. The aim of these approaches is to stimulate the regrowth of damaged, pathologically changed or destroyed tissue.

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,500 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 19 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

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