Bridging Scales

The question of how cells form tissues has been the question driving research at the MPI-CBG from the very beginning. The general principle of research at MPI-CBG is to dissect basic cellular functions and to identify where they are modified or amplified in development and evolution in order to bring about diversity. As a result, our research program spans the scales from molecules to organisms and continuously evolves new angles and approaches as Research Group Leaders leave and new Research Group Leaders are hired. Importantly, the various research activities in the different groups provide numerous overlaps and interfaces between the different research areas.


Membrane organization and membrane traffic continues to be an essential research area at MPI-CBG. Marino Zerial continues his successful work on the endosomal system with a special focus on the rab5 machinery and its functions in trafficking and intracellular signal transduction. Andrej Shevchenko’s development of new mass spectrometry tools for quantitative profiling of lipidomes has been essential for driving the membrane research field forward. The area of membrane biochemistry has been strengthened by the recent hiring of André Nadler and Alf Honigmann.


Complementing the above lines of research, the institute significantly intensified its research on the structure of the cytoplasm and on non-membrane-bounded cellular compartments. The groups of Anthony Hyman and Simon Alberti study how environmental changes (pH, temperature, pressure) regulate the properties of the cytoplasm. The Hyman group focuses on liquid-like compartments like P-granules. The Alberti group studies the assembly of macromolecules into compartments or filaments and the balance between compartment formation and aggregation. The group of Gaia Pigino develops high-resolution 3D electron microscopy to study ciliary assembly and the intraflagellar transport machinery. This research area has been complemented by the recent hiring of Jan Brugués and Moritz Kreysing.

Gene Expression

Besides membranes and cytoplasm, research at MPI-CBG has been extended to the central compartment of the cell, the nucleus. The group of Nadine Vastenhouw studies the regulation of gene expression, in particular formation of transcriptionally competent chromatin and the interaction of the transcriptional machinery with the chromatin template. This work is complemented by the activities of an increasing number of research groups who study gene expression in the context of development and evolution. Pavel Tomancak’s group has created a number of gene expression atlases for Drosophila tissues and now aims at connecting these gene expression patterns to cellular functions that cause measurable physical changes in the tissue. Wieland Huttner has determined the transcriptomes of various types of neural stem cells in developing mouse and human brain to obtain clues about the machinery controlling the proliferation of these cells.

Polarity and Patterning

The bridge from the single-cell to the multicellular level is provided by the research of groups focusing on polarity and patterning. Cell polarity is another basic cellular function essential for development and evolution. The group of Elisabeth Knust studies the genetic and molecular control of epithelial cell polarity in Drosophila, in particular during stress conditions, such as morphogenetic movements during embryonic development or light stress in adult photoreceptor cells. The Eaton and Zerial groups study cell polarity in the context of tissue patterning. Controlling tissue size and shape is the focus of the Eaton group, which has developed quantitative models describing how morphogen gradients regulate the amount and orientation of growth and couple it to patterning in the development of the Drosophila wing. The Zerial group aims at identifying the design principles of mammalian liver tissue. Upstream of tissue patterning in development are the patterns of gene expression and gene regulatory networks. The group of Jochen Rink studies how form and size emerge during flatworm regeneration, especially how the body axis is patterned and how the pattern is regenerated after truncation of the animal.


These more complex research topics are also intimately linked to the issue of metabolism. Hence, in addition to the above research, Suzanne Eaton’s group investigates how lipid metabolism influences the activity of certain morphogens. Her work is complemented by that of the group of Teymuras Kurzchalia, who studies how animal metabolism is regulated and responds to extreme conditions like desiccation or starvation.

Evolution and neural development

A major goal of the research at MPI-CBG is to focus the question how cells form tissues not only on developmental processes, but to address these issues also in the context of evolution. Consequently, several groups carry out evolution-related research, and this is combined with a strong focus on the development of the central nervous system. Michael Hiller investigates the evolution of phenotype-genotype associations and looks at differences between functional genomic regions between species. Evolution and development of neural systems is investigated by the groups of Wieland Huttner and Caren Norden, and the Knust group’s work on the retina forms part of this research field as well. The goal of the Huttner group is the elucidation of the molecular and cellular principles underlying the evolutionary expansion of the neocortex. The Norden group has contributed significantly to understanding the cell biology of pseudostratified neuroepithelia and investigates the cell and tissue rearrangements during optic cup morphogenesis.

Technology Development

MPI-CBG’s research is complemented by a strong technology development component – in quantitative mass spectrometry by the Shevchenko group, but especially in Microscopy and Modeling. Jan Huisken has been leading the development of advanced light sheet microscopy for non-invasive, high-resolution (spatial and temporal) imaging of live animals. The Tomancak group developed the OpenSPIM, the "SPIM in a suitcase, and with the Fiji software has created an extremely successful open source image analysis platform. Theory and modeling had been introduced by interactions between groups at MPI-CBG and groups at the MPI for the Physics of Complex Systems (MPI-PKS), in particular with the department of Frank Jülicher. In fact, from 2009-2015 MPI-CBG published 45 collaborative papers with groups at MPI-PKS. This successful interaction and the recruitment of Gene Myers, an internationally renowned computer scientist and a world expert in using computational approaches to analyze huge data sets, as the sixth director in 2012 led to the foundation of the Center of Systems Biology Dresden (CSBD). Gene Myers’ goal is to digitize cellular and developmental processes, towards which his group builds ultra-sensitive microscopes and develops new algorithms for extracting models from the imagery produced. An additional research line of his lab is the development of new genome assembly algorithms for de novo sequencing projects. The area of systems biology was further strengthened by the recruitment of two more groups: The group of Ivo Sbalzarini wants to create interactive virtual reality microscopy and image analysis for which they develop new image processing and simulation algorithms. The group of Michael Hiller develops computational approaches to evolutionary genomics.

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