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1.5 million Euros for research on the evolution of proteins

Research consortium receives funding from Volkswagen Foundation


Tübingen, 16 July 2018. Proteins are key to life as we know it. A new cooperation project around Tübingen-based molecular biologist Andrei Lupas aims to investigate the evolution of these diverse structures. The consortium, which comprises the Lupas group at the Max Planch Institute for Developmental Biology, the Höcker group from the University of Bayreuth, and the Kolodny, Ben Tal, Fleishman, and Tawfik groups from Israel, tries to answer the question of how proteins emerged and continued to evolve. The Volkswagen Foundation funds the project under the program „Life? - A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life“.

Understanding how proteins emerged 3.7 billion years ago and continued to evolve to this very day, is key to understanding Life. They come in different shapes and are involved in various biological functions, including metabolism, immune response, muscle movements, and more. Although their functions are varied and complex, they are all made of the same building blocks, the amino acids. Through the process of evolution, amino acid segments from existing proteins are reassembled to form new proteins, sometimes leading to new functions. This reuse of structures is a basic phenomenon in protein evolution.

The researchers’ goal is to trace the recurring segments and therefrom decipher the origin of proteins, similarly to archaeologists tracing human history. By means of methods in protein biochemistry, structural biology, and bioinformatics, they will attempt to identify the segments, understand their history, and reconstruct the proteins in the lab. This „molecular archaeology“ will promote a deeper understanding of protein evolution and thus of the fundamental principles of life.

The question „What is Life?“ is the focus of the Volkswagen Foundation funding initiative supporting research areas located especially at the interface between the natural and life sciences. With the headline “Life? - A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life” the initiative supports unique research projects with this particular focus. The Volkswagen Foundation is Germany‘s largest private research funding foundation. Since it was founded more than 50 years ago, it has supported over 30,000 projects from science and technology.

Reuse of protein segments

Reuse of protein segments ©Max Planck-Institute for Developmental Biology