Two Advanced Grants of the European Research Council (ERC) have been awarded to researchers at Goethe University Frankfurt. The sociologist Professor Thomas Lemke is researching the social impacts of cryobiology, i.e. the freezing and long-term preservation of organic material. The biochemist Professor Robert Tampé wants to unravel the winding pathways of the immune system inside the cell.
“Cryosocieties” project explores „suspended life“
Cryobiology has seen an enormous upturn over the last decades. More and more types of tissues and cellular material can be frozen, stored and thawed again without any detectable loss of vitality. Today, cryobiological practices are not only an important infrastructural prerequisite for many medical applications and a significant driver for innovations in the life sciences but also represent important options for personal family planning decisions as well as for the preservation of global biodiversity.
“In our ‘Cryosocieties’ project, I want to investigate the impact of cryopreservation on our understanding of life, starting with the hypothesis that cryobiological practices produce a specific form of life that I call „suspended life“ . They keep many vital processes in a suspended state between life and death, in which biological substances are neither completely alive nor completely dead,” explains Professor Thomas Lemke from the Institute of Sociology. The aim of the project, which lies at the interface between biology, sociology and technology, is to study how cryopreservation practices alter temporal and spatial relationships and configurations as well as our understanding of life and death, health and illness, (in)fertility and sustainability.
In three different scenarios, Lemke and his team will investigate how „suspended life“ is produced in current cryopreservation practices. These sub-projects deal with the freezing of umbilical cord blood as preparation for later regenerative therapies, the cryopreservation of egg cells for reproductive purposes and the setting up of cryobanks for the preservation of endangered or already extinct animal species.
Immune defence in the cell
Although the immune system is one of the most complex systems in the human body – with many different types of immune cells as well as transport and messenger molecules – pathogens and cancer cells manage to outwit it over and over again. Herpes and smallpox viruses, for example, have developed ingenious strategies to attack specific pathways in the body’s immune system.
A virus that has penetrated the cell is normally disassembled in a kind of molecule shredder (proteasome) and then transported to the cell’s surface where it is presented to the T cells of the immune system. Herpes and smallpox viruses manage, however, to remain hidden in the cell by attacking the transport molecule that is supposed to carry them to the surface.
What is known so far is that small pieces of proteins (peptides) from the proteasome are processed by a large macromolecular complex and many helper molecules in preparation for their journey to the cell’s surface. This is known as the peptide-loading complex and sits in the endoplasmic reticulum, the “cell’s engine room”. In this highly folded system of membrane-enclosed cavities, proteins are produced, folded, checked and prepared for their journey to the cell’s surface.
Professor Robert Tampé from the Institute of Biochemistry explains the project: “My goal is to study the antigen processing mechanism in detail. With this research, we are setting off along one of the thorniest paths in the life sciences because we’re dealing with large molecules with different assemblies which are moreover relatively rare in intercellular membranes.” However, since his research group has succeeded in recent years in shedding light on some important structures in the peptide-loading complex and their functions, he is well prepared for the new project. “We expect that our work will have a considerable influence on many areas of the life sciences, especially in the field of cancer research as well as infectious and autoimmune diseases,” says Tampé.