The research consortium and its projects will increase Berlin’s importance as a major site of advanced research on biodiversity, meaning the study of variation among life forms. The partners of Freie Universität that are involved in the consortium are the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and the Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
The spectrum of research activities pursued at the new center is a broad one: Researchers associated with the consortium partners study complex groups of closely related species alongside threatened and endangered species of animals and plants – such as the yellowgreen catchfly plant (Silene chlorantha), which grows in dry grasslands. Researchers can now also unlock the world of microorganisms, which has remained largely undiscovered to date. These organisms are often key factors in ecosystems, as in the case of diatoms, a kind of algae that function as important producers of oxygen. Changes in genetic information due to adaptation to environmental and climate change can also be traced.
Overhaul Funded by Berlin Senate and German Research Foundation
The center’s labs are equipped with state-of-the-art, high-tech systems for “high-throughput” DNA sequencing, and are located within the labs of the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum (BGBM) in Berlin’s Dahlem district, which is among the Central Services of Freie Universität Berlin. As a result, the researchers can now analyze large amounts of genetic information in a brief period – 200 times faster than with conventional methods, and at considerably less financial expense than previously. The labs recently underwent a full overhaul and were completely reorganized with new equipment, thanks to 950,000 euros in funding provided by the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development. Purchases of large-scale equipment were funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and other sponsors.
Windows for Live Research
In the future, all visitors to the Botanical Museum will be able to look through windows in the laboratory doors to watch advanced research at work. A public exhibit explains the individual working processes utilized within the lab spaces, which are organized in sequence to reflect their workflow and are all linked together. Activities at the labs include isolating DNA and analyzing the genetic “fingerprints” of plants and animals in order to glean clues to how they are related and how they have evolved over time. Visiting the new exhibit is also worthwhile for students who want to get to know the path from initial sample to the result of sequenced hereditary information. The exhibit was financed by Verein der Freunde des Botanischen Gartens und Botanischen Museums Berlin-Dahlem e. V., a nonprofit association of friends of the BGBM.
The president of Freie Universität Berlin, Professor Peter-André Alt, gave a speech to mark the center’s opening, welcoming the universities’ cooperation with research institutions outside the university that are affiliated with the Leibniz Association. Alt went on to praise this involvement as a perfect fit for the development concept pursued by Freie Universität Berlin as part of the Excellence Initiative, that of the “international network university.” Freie Universität maintains various networks, not only at the international level, but also within the region, and, Alt said, makes a substantial contribution to the academic and research scene in Berlin. He also cited the establishment of the biodiversity center as an important component of the university’s application for a DFG research center for biodiversity research and within the scope of the competition under the Excellence Initiative.
Professor Ernst Theodor Rietschel, past president of the Leibniz Association, expects the founding of the consortium to affect the research policies pursued by the universities as well. Professor Klement Tockner, Director of the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries and spokesman of the Leibniz Association Biodiversity Alliance, explained the importance of biodiversity research to modern societies. In today’s era, the Anthropocene, Tockner said, scientists are not only taking inventory of species, but also increasingly studying the interactions between native and introduced, or exotic, species. Genetic analysis, he went on, helps researchers to understand how species evolve, what kinds of dynamics exist within populations, and why species become extinct.
Professor Thomas Borsch, Director of the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum in Berlin’s Dahlem district, which is affiliated with Freie Universität Berlin, presented the consortium’s future work. Thanks to fast, cost-effective DNA sequencing technology, it is possible to study more than just model species, as previously, instead performing large-scale studies of populations of various species and even whole groups of related species and ecosystems or communities. While previously, only individual genetic sequences of organisms were compared with each other, entire genomes could be studied in the future.