Germany’s Max Planck society has formally approved creation of a new research institute that will focus on the biology of aging and be part of a major life sciences cluster anchored by the University of Cologne. 

Biochemistry will be one of the three prime disciplines of the institute, combining with molecular biology and cell biology, according to Herbert Jäckle, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen who coordinated planning for the new institute.

There seems to be an intrinsic clock. The problem is we don’t know much about it

Herbert Jäckle, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry

Jäckle, also a vice president of the Max Planck Society, said that as human populations continue to get older and older, it is important to develop a better understanding of the aging process. Scientist do not know why, for example, tortoises on average can live for more than a century and mice only three or four years.

’There seems to be an intrinsic clock,’ he told Chemistry World. ’The problem is we don’t know much about it. The basic and fundamental question is: What is happening in cells?’

The new institute will be unique, as it will focus primarily on understanding the natural aging process and not on diseases or other ailments related to aging, said Jäckle, adding: ’The institute will be the first of its kind in the world.’ In addition to a global research center, the institute also will train young scientists in the biology of aging.

The Max Planck society first announced its intent to establish the institute in early 2004, and since then has worked on securing funding, a location and founding directors. The Max Planck senate officially approved the plan last week. Three founding directors were named: Linda Partridge, director of the Centre for Ecology and Evolution at University College London, UK; Adam Antebi, of the Huffington Center on Aging, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, US; and Nils-Göran Larsson, professor in mitochondrial genetics at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.

To understand the mechanisms involved you have to know which molecules are involved and how they talk to each other

Herbert Jäckle

The institute will be housed in a yet-to-be-constructed €50 million (£33.75 million) building near the University of Cologne, with €30 million of the total coming from the home state of Rhineland-Westphalia. Current plans call for the institute to be fully operational by 2012 with four departments, 100 staff members and an annual operating budget of €15 million. Jäckle said the fourth director’s chair was intentionally left open to be filled later when the Max Planck Society has a clearer idea of the additional expertise needed to fill the chair.

During the build-up phase of the institute, most of the chemistry expertise will come from the nearby Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Jäckle said, adding that sub-groups focusing on chemistry might be set up at the new institute.

The importance of chemistry in helping to answer the question of what happens in cells during the aging process is obvious, said Jäckle. ’To understand the mechanisms involved you have to know which molecules are involved and how they talk to each other,’ he said.